Are some Brexiteers addicted to disappointment and frustration? Do they so crave the righteous indignation that flows from being thwarted that they are actively trying to sabotage their own project? How else to explain the extraordinary strategic incompetence of Tory MPs who say they want Britain to leave the EU yet behave in a way that makes it increasingly likely that Britain will not do so?
Brexit-backing readers may well dismiss my thoughts on Brexiteer strategy because I am, of course, a dreadful Remainer. More accurately, I voted to remain and I believe that leaving the EU will give the UK a range of possible futures that are less economically beneficial than those we’d have if we remained a member. And yet I think Britain should leave the EU, because that’s what Britain voted to do.
This is not a comfortable position to be in. Leaving aside the fact that some of my Remain-backing friends regard my stance here with varying degrees of horror, anger and sorrow, it means I often write in favour of policy that I believe to be economically second best. Yet that policy still has more democratic legitimacy than the alternative, so it should be enacted. Put another way, I believe that in June 2016, the British people voted to make themselves poorer and that politicians should grant their wish. HL Mencken had a point when he said that democracy is the theory that the people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.
The point of this self-referential aside is that my approach is one that sensible Brexiteers should seek to celebrate and encourage. Instead of resting on the simple fact of that 52 per cent in June 2016, good politics suggests that the way to get your way is to seek to add to the number of people supporting your view, to try to win over the people who once disagreed with you.
Instead, many Tory Brexiteers are taking precisely the opposite tack, and as a result now face the very real possibility that they will lose the prize many of them have worked for over years and decades.
This week, Leave-backing Tory MPs could have sealed their 2016 victory in law and political reality. They could have voted for a Withdrawal Agreement that would have made British exit from the EU inevitable. Had they accepted Theresa May’s deal, Brexit would today be a done deal, a settled fact of life. They didn’t, so it isn’t.
Of course, I know the Brexiteer reasons for rejection. It’s not “real” Brexit. It would entail compromises and limitations on British sovereignty. It’s not what people voted for.
I can’t really be bothered to set out in detail why that’s all cobblers, why what is today described as “real” Brexit is wholly inconsistent with what its advocates previously demanded and promised. Or why the “sovereignty” described does not and cannot exist in the international political economy of the early 21st Century. Let’s look instead at the consequences of the Brexiteer rejection of that deal. If you take a step back and consider that in wider, even historic context, it is a frankly bizarre act.
By rejecting the May deal, the Brexiteers have turned down the chance to secure their precious Brexit and given an opportunity to those who would undo that project. It should now be clear to the Brexiteers that the Commons can and will act to prevent Britain leaving the EU with no deal. Doing so is much more complicated than a lot of commentary suggests, because the legislation allowing the invocation of Article 50 in 2017 does indeed put Britain on a conveyor-belt to exit on 29 March, come what may. The No Deal Brexit some Leavers now appear to dream of is indeed the default setting.
But that conveyor belt can be stopped, and the means of doing so are now visible. See this by Sionaidh Douglas-Scott if you really want the detailed constitutional law but the central point is that something like the European Union Withdrawal (No 2) Bill proposed by Nick Boles, Liz Kendall, Norman Lamb, Yvette Cooper, Hillary Benn and Sir Oliver Letwin could halt the Article 50 process.
Yes, that outcome would require any number of things to happen and conditions to be met. But given the current state of the two main party leaderships, if a majority of MPs wish something to happen, probably the only person who can prevent that thing happening is the Speaker of the House of Commons. I wonder if the Brexiteers who celebrated the parliamentary defeat of the May deal Chez Rees Mogg on Tuesday night would have savoured their champagne quite so much if they’d reflected on how they might just have given John Bercow a golden opportunity to help prevent Brexit.
Leavers may not like what Philip Hammond and Greg Clark had to say on that leaked call with business leaders, but they’re surely right that there is a substantial majority in the Commons to prevent a No Deal exit. That would very likely weaken, possibly terminally, the UK negotiating position with the EU, which might well conclude from the withdrawal of the Article 50 notice that the only outcome would be continued full – and permanent – UK membership.
Of course, this would be Armageddon-level political ordnance. Blowing up Brexit would take Britain to a new and even more diabolical level of the inferno, and for that reason, I suspect many MPs in that majority would think long and hard before voting for it.
This brings me back to the astonishing, self-defeating stupidity of the death-or-glory Brexiteers, whose refusal to accept the concessions of the May deal is rapidly burning the goodwill and willingness to compromise of people whose support they still need to get their way in the Commons and the country.
To my mind, possibly the most important speech of the long, long debate about the Withdrawal Agreement was made by Paul Masterton, the Conservative MP for East Renfrewshire, the sort of sensible, centrist politician who can be found on both sides of the Commons. Masterton is another Remain voter who accepts the democratic imperative to leave, while making the (wholly legitimate and entirely reasonable) argument that our exit should be done in a way that minimises harm. For that, he has been accused of treachery and – by my old paper, sadly – of “mutiny”, yet he has stayed the course, continuing to support a policy he did not vote for and whose advocates have treated him with discourtesy bordering on contempt.
Yet even reasonable men have limits, which is why Masterton had this to say to his colleagues:
There are many Conservative Members who, like me, voted to remain but accept, admittedly reluctantly and with some misgivings, that we are leaving the European Union. We have compromised at every stage of the process to try to find a way to make this work, and the deal before us is as far as I am prepared to go. If some of my colleagues want to blow this up in pursuit of an ideologically purist fantasy, fine—go ahead—but I am done. My patience and goodwill will be gone, along with the patience and goodwill of many other Conservative Members.
Would it not be something if, when the history books are written, it emerged that it was owing to the arrogance and belligerence of the hardline Brexiteers in refusing to compromise that, rather than ending up with this imperfect Brexit, they ended up with no Brexit at all?
That is indeed the choice that is fast approaching. Having sought to salt the earth of the centre ground of the Brexit debate where Theresa May attempted to plant her deal, the Brexiteers could soon find that they have destroyed their own project as people who could have been reluctant allies become opponents instead. See Danny Finkelstein’s gloriously angry column here for a good example.
Consider again the perversity of the purist Brexiteers’ conduct this week. Doubtless some Leavers would argue that they never needed (or even really had) the support of moderates like Masterton and Finkelstein, Boles and Morgan. But they’d be wrong, because the numbers don’t lie. Lose enough of those sensible, moderate people in the compromising middle of the Brexit debate and you lose Brexit, just as you have long feared you would.
Some of the people in the Leave camp have worked and dreamed for their whole lives to take Britain out of the European Union; it is no exaggeration to say that Jacob Rees Mogg, for instance, grew up learning about the European project and the need to leave it, from people like Bill Cash – whose entire political career has been defined by his rejection of that project.
For years and decades, the sceptics endured derision and scorn. They were told their views were mad, marginal and malign. Exiled to the fringes of politics and ridiculed as loons, they marched on regardless. Then in 2016, they won, achieving the sort of public and popular victory that their critics and opponents told them again and again was impossible and unthinkable. This week, less than 100 days away from seeing that victory made permanent, they chose to open up the possibility that it will be reversed. Even by the standards of the Brexit debacle, that is jawdroppingly stupid.