Brexit at the pointy end

There are just two and a half weeks left to Brexit day. Unless something is done in the meantime, Britain will leave the European Union at 10am (eastern Australian time) on Saturday, 30 March.

So it’s hard to disagree with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn when he says that prime minister Theresa May “has recklessly run down the clock,” in the hope that MPs will approve her agreement with the EU simply because there is no alternative.

Certainly there seems nothing in the additional material that she brought back overnight from her negotiations with the EU leadership that would change more than a handful of minds. At most it amounts to tinkering with the edges of the Irish “backstop” – the provision to remain in the customs union until the problem of the Irish border is sorted out.

And since May’s deal was rejected by 230 votes in the House of Commons last time, it’s easy to see that toughening it a bit to rope in a few more Brexiters isn’t going to work. As I said back in January, “whatever one thinks of such a strategy in policy terms, the most important thing about it is that it’s mathematically impossible. The numbers just aren’t there.”

So when the rebranded deal is put to a vote tonight or tomorrow, it’s clearly going to go down. May has then promised a vote on whether to rule out a “no deal” Brexit by seeking an extension of the 29 March deadline.

At this point, the foolishness of May’s strategy becomes obvious. The whole point of pursuing a “hard” Brexit strategy, rather than negotiating with Labour, is to try to keep the Conservative Party together. But a vote on an article 50 extension will split the Tories anyway, perhaps irretrievably.

The only way to get a majority for anything like May’s deal is to win over the Labour leadership. A couple of months ago, some sort of agreement with Corbyn might have been possible: in terms of their personal Brexit preferences, he and May seem to be not very far apart.

But since then, Corbyn’s internal position has weakened significantly. He now has to pay much more attention to the pro-European majority in his party, and his terms for an agreement would now almost certainly include a referendum on the deal, with “remain” to be included as an option.

The majority of MPs are probably not very keen on another referendum. But if it comes down to a choice between “no deal” on the one hand and a package that includes a referendum on the other, then a referendum it will have to be.

A referendum, however, raises a host of new issues. It will take time to organise; possibly more than the three months that is being talked about as a likely extension. And if Britain is still in the EU at the end of May – especially if there’s a reasonable chance of it staying in for good – then it really should participate in elections for the European parliament.

So there will be pressure on MPs to come up with some sort of compromise: “an off-the-shelf model” of customs union, as Labour’s Stephen Kinnock told the Guardian.

But with the solid bloc of hard Brexiters against it, such an option can only get through with the support of Corbyn and the Labour whip. And if Corbyn goes back on a referendum now, it will probably split the Labour Party as well.

Polls consistently say that the majority thinks the original decision to leave the EU was the wrong one, and that gap has been widening. But no-one really knows how a new referendum would fare – partly because no-one knows just what the question would be.

Things seem to be rapidly reaching the stage, however, at which there will be no realistic alternative to returning the decision to the voters. As Mark Kenny suggested last week, “Having handed this unquantified question to the people in 2016 and then failed to make it work, Westminster should finally admit it is incapable of resolving the mess its leaders unleashed.”

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