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A second referendum is a big risk but it’s the only solution

27 March 2019

4:56 PM

27 March 2019

4:56 PM

You would need a heart of stone not to laugh at the predicament in which Jacob Rees-Mogg and his fellow travellers in the European Research Group now find themselves. Happily I am not so encumbered. Having spent months decrying the withdrawal agreement negotiated with the European Union the Moggists now find themselves forced to think about backing it for fear nanny may otherwise bring something worse to the table. 

Well, other than anyone capable of observing the facts of Brexit life, who could have predicted this? Who could have recognised that, from the perspective of the Brexiteers themselves, half a loaf is better than no bread at all? 

There is a piercing irony, too, in the manner in which Moggmentum now finds itself in the unhappy position endured by David Cameron during the referendum campaign itself. Having spent years complaining about the ghastliness of the EU – without whose interference, it was strongly implied, life would be both more simply and better arranged – Cameron then had to reverse his ferret and argue that, despite this, leaving was a jolly bad idea because the EU was actually very much better than his previous remarks, and indeed posture, had given you reason to suspect. 

As then, so now. The “vassalage” promised by accepting the Prime Minister’s deal is now, actually and when you look at it from the new, correct, angle – not so very intolerable after all. It might not even reduce this proud island nation to vassal status; it might be a kind of liberation. The sort of thing that, far from betraying Brexit, might actually deliver it. So, the Moggeries say, you should forget what we said last week and instead concentrate on what we say now. 

Good luck with that. The hardcore Brexiteers, some of whom no doubt remain irreconcilable to reality, remain blissfully unaware of the manner in which this latest part of the Brexit crisis is a reaction to the part of the Brexit crisis chiefly caused by them. They had Brexit; all they had to do was vote for it. Their disinclination to do so had consequences; the Revoke petition, now amounting to more than five million signatures, is not just the expression of a preference for abandoning the whole miserable project but, more pertinently, a reaction to the Brexiteers’ own disinclination to settle for half a cake. 

As a whole, the country has never warmly embraced the withdrawal agreement but then it has not embraced any other option gladly either. But there were, and perhaps remain, plenty of voters for whom it was an acceptable, if sub-optimal, result. Not their first choice, but one with which they could cope. It was the Brexiteers who changed that. Why should all the compromising be done by those who voted Remain? The spirit of “hell mend them” is abroad and will not be recaptured any time soon. 

Still, if that’s worth a dark chuckle so is everything else, including this evening’s series of indicative votes. If there remains any justice in the Brexit universe, the House of Commons will indicate it dislikes each of these proposed paths through the swamp. None of them particularly deserve to pass for there is no part of the House of Commons that emerges from this process with its glory enhanced. A Parliament that demanded the right to seize control and then, when it had that control, decided it could not, and would not, do anything with it is precisely the sort of absurdist coda this tragicomedy merits. 

This has become a saga in which victory ceases to be the ultimate goal. Or, to put it another way, your opponents defeat is sweeter than your own victory. That helps explain why Leave and Remain identities now – at least for the time being – trump party affiliations. Everyone has a team now, even if they don’t want one. 

In that sense, Dominic Cummings is right. This is far from the end of the matter or even the beginning of the end of the matter. This is a rupture in British politics that will not be repaired any time soon. Neither the Conservative nor the Labour parties are big enough or imaginative enough or in any way capable of dealing with this. 

So the idea that we – somehow! – get over this hump and then press a reset button seems awfully optimistic to me. Theresa May is a problem and a Prime Minister badly overdrawn but her departure, while eventually obvious and necessary, is no kind of solution either. More probably it opens up far more questions than her replacement can possibly answer. That in turn means the divisions apparent in British politics are going to become greater not smaller. 

And there is this further hilarity. We may yet be on the road to the kind of Brexit that Jacob Rees-Mogg and his colleagues argue is actually worse than Remaining. All the drawbacks of leaving with few of the advantages of Remaining. Well, indeed. That’s why Remainers argued against it in 2016 at a time when Leavers were floating it as a possibility of the kind of Brexit that would be different yet also reassuringly similar. In the game of Brexit what goes around comes around. 

Most of all, however, this is a game no-one deserves to win now and, this being so, one it would have been better not to have decided to play at all. Taken as a whole, today’s series of indicative votes will only demonstrate the extent to which that is now obviously the case. But because logic crowds out compromise, the plainest and perhaps truest choice would be between a no-deal departure and no-Brexit at all. And the only way to settle that is to have another referendum, fraught with all the risks and uncertainties it brings with it. Each of those options is fraught with unwelcome political risk, however. Which, again, is why we’re stuck here. If it weren’t so bleedin’ ghastly you’d have to laugh. 

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