Well, what did you expect? I appreciate this is a question the Brexiteers are manifestly incapable of answering but that says more about their preconceived notions of what Brexit could reasonably deliver. It is a reflection, too, of the manner in which there have always been two different kinds of Brexit.
There has been the Brexit of dreams and the Brexit of reality. The Brexit of psychology and the Brexit of technical policy detail. There has always been an obvious tension, to put it mildly, between these two positions and it is not anyone else’s fault that in pursuit of their dreams the diehard Brexiteers decided the detail could all be arranged to Britain’s supreme satisfaction and everyone else would fall into line. As the old saw has it, our boy was marching in step, everyone else was getting it wrong.
But how could it have been otherwise? Delusion was baked-in from the start; from the very moment David Davis, king of the blusterers, declared: “The first calling point of the UK’s negotiator immediately after Brexit will not be Brussels, it will be Berlin, to strike a deal”. From the beginning, then, Brexit was a house built on ignorance and arrogance. Or, as Davis said in October 2016, “There will be no downside to Brexit, only a considerable upside.”
What innocent days those were; a time when BMW and Volkswagen were going to tell Frau Merkel what to do and make it clear that satisfying David Davis and Boris Johnson and all the rest of the Brexit boys was at the very toppermost part of their agenda. But of course the details of the withdrawal agreement must leave the United Kingdom in a position that’s less agreeable than EU membership. How could it be otherwise? Cakeism is not a viable option.
Now Davis says “This is the moment of truth. This is the fork in the road. Do we pursue a future as an independent nation or accept EU domination, imprisonment in the customs union and send class status. Cabinet and all Conservative MPs should stand up, be counted, and say no to this capitulation”. It’s almost as though David Davis never had a role to play in anything that led us to this present, unhappy, moment.
And of course it is unhappy. Again, how could it be otherwise? There are no good choices available because Brexit means Brexit. None of this, obviously, is the fault of the people who wanted Brexit in the first place. They are the pure of heart and their souls are untarnished by grubby engagement with reality. That is for other people.
There must be no compromise because compromise demands concessions and if one part of the dream dies then so must it all. Never mind that the withdrawal agreement is only the first step of the dance, to be followed by the actual negotiations that will determine the full extent of the UK’s relationship with, by God, its largest trading partner. Never mind, too, that in this proposed agreement the EU has also moved, accepting the need for a pan-UK backstop it objected to when the idea was proposed a year ago.
Nobody can be pleased by these proposals. In that sense, they are an echo of the referendum campaign itself: those arguing for Remain did so because it was the status quo and hardly one that oppressed the United Kingdom. Few Remain voters were deeply invested in the EU itself; they generally felt leaving was both a risk – and a hassle – too far. Well, on that latter front they have been proven correct.
As then, so now: the Prime Minister’s agreement has few, if any, enthusiastic champions. Those arrayed against it, by contrast, can find dozens of reasons to oppose it. One MPs reason for rejecting it need not be the same as his – or her – neighbour’s reason. It will not be simple getting this through parliament. As rallying calls go, “This is the best deal available in circumstances that are far from the best available” lacks a certain something.
But it does have one advantage: it is true. Everyone whose veins and eyes remain un-popped accepts that a No Deal withdrawal will be a calamity of a sort for which the economy – and the country – is singularly unprepared. Committed Brexiteers will doubtless blame the Prime Minister for not doing more to prepare the country for a No Deal outcome though it is not obvious that she should have done more to make that outcome – which she plainly considers terrible – more likely. If that amounts to a form of Russian Roulette, Brexiteers might reflect on the fact they started the game before handing the revolver to the Prime Minister.
Much could still go wrong, of course, and because this is Brexit probably will. But if the country has little confidence in the Prime Minister it has still less in either the leader of the opposition or the Tory backbench Brexiteers themselves. Given a choice between Theresa May and Peter Bone, the country will discover previously unappreciated reserves of affection for the Prime Minister.
Of course, again, it is a bad deal. That is because there was never any prospect of a good deal. Brexit is a salvage operation; even when it is done well, the boat is not in the condition it was before it sank.
Everyone, on all sides of the house and all parts of the Brexit spectrum, has reason to be unhappy about this. Even so, there is a piquant irony in seeing committed Brexiteers complaining that if this is the deal, it’s worse than remaining a full member of the EU. Well, yes, that’s what some people suggested in the spring of 2016 too. Back then, however, life was all sunshine and roses and dreams were dreamt of gambolling with unicorns in the sweet-flowering meadows of cake-filled national liberation.
Oddly, it hasn’t quite worked out like that.
But if it is this deal or nothing, then how many MPs, from all parties, are really prepared to embrace nothing and be capable of telling their constituents they embraced chaos for their constituents’ own good? The alternative is grumbling and muddling-through and what, in the end, could be more quintessentially British than that? It’s rubbish, but that’s life.