It’s crunch time in Brexit-land, with the clock rapidly running down towards 29 March, the date on which Britain is supposed to leave the European Union. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to see any way in which an agreed method of doing that could be in place by then.
This week’s progress consists of the approval by the British cabinet of prime minister Theresa May’s draft agreement, at the cost of another two high-profile resignations (and possibly more to come). But at least there’s a deal that the other EU leaders are likely to sign off on.
The problem, however, is in London, not Brussels. The chance of getting this agreement – or any plausible alternative – through the House of Commons is vanishingly small.
And don’t take my word for it. Thanks to the Guardian, you can have a try yourself at trying to put together a Commons majority. You’ll find it’s not easy. The paper’s own estimates of how groups will vote produce a crushing majority against the government, 415 to 224.
I moved the “Wavering Brexiters” to the “yes” lobby (on the theory that they’ll be willing to swallow their objections to avoid a Labour government), plus the Democratic Unionist Party (on the theory that they’ll want to preserve their position of power by avoiding a fresh election), and still got a very clear vote against the deal, 340 to 299.
So if that’s the government’s best case, it’s in a bad way. Moreover, this isn’t some startling new revelation. It’s been obvious for a year now that only a miracle could clear this key obstacle. As I said in September, “While there may perhaps be a Commons majority for Brexit in the abstract (although even that is far from certain), there is no way to put together a majority for any particular Brexit plan.”
But no-one knows what will happen when the Commons votes no to May’s deal. Indeed, there’s no certainty that her own party will let her survive that long. Even if the EU agrees to reopen negotiations, that would simply delay the inevitable: a fresh agreement might produce a slightly different hostile majority, but it will be just as hostile.
Yet anything else looks like political suicide. May could announce that there will be a no-deal Brexit (daring her opponents to bring on a no-confidence motion), or she could resign, or ask for a new election. Each option is likely to lead to a Labour government.
And of course that doesn’t solve the problem either, since Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn and his colleagues seem equally clueless on the subject of Brexit, unwilling or unable to set out an alternative vision – or even to promise a second referendum that might allow the electorate to sort it out.
Some will take the whole saga as proof that referenda and parliamentary government are not compatible, and that it was a mistake to consult voters directly in the first place.
I’m not convinced of that. I think a referendum can still be a useful option in a parliamentary system, but it works best when the issues involved are relatively clear-cut. Conversely, it works badly when you have an issue that looks simple on the surface, but actually conceals a minefield of complexities.
Australia has experience of this over the last 20 years with our debate on moving to a republic. A referendum in 1999, put (like Brexit) by a government that was mostly against the idea, was defeated, apparently on the basis of its detail – polls showed that the majority was supportive of a republic in principle.
But of course you can’t just add a “principle” to your constitution; there have to be specific words. The Labor opposition took from this the moral – correctly, in my view – that there should be a two-stage process. First a vote in principle on whether to move to a republic; then, if that was approved, a process of drafting and consultation to produce a detailed proposal that could be put to a second, binding, referendum.
Labor took that policy to an election in 2001, but it lost (although for other reasons), and the issue has made only periodic appearances since. Bill Shorten, who seems set to become prime minister next year, renewed the promise last week, although polls show that a referendum would probably be defeated.
This, however, is how Brexit could have been dealt with. First, an in-principle referendum on whether or not to leave the EU; then, if “leave” won, a period of negotiation to settle on an actual deal for leaving, which would be subject to approval in a second referendum.
In Australia, the two-stage process is mostly opposed by opponents of a republic; they describe the in-principle vote as “giving a blank cheque” to the republicans. But in Britain, of course, it’s the Brexiters who are most opposed to having a second vote, arguing that it means subverting the will of the people as expressed in 2016.
That claim depends on the assumption that a vote to leave has to be construed as a vote to leave on any terms at all. But there’s no basis for that assumption; on the contrary, it can be safely assumed that a fair proportion of those who voted “leave” would still have felt that some possible terms would be so bad that staying in would be preferable.
Given that only 51.9% voted “leave” at all, the idea that there is majority support for the sort of “no-deal” Brexit that the country is now headed for seems far-fetched. But of course without another referendum, we can’t really be sure.