As Mrs May hunkers down in Downing Street, probably ruminating about a date for the ‘meaningful and critical vote’ on Brexit, she has now set for mid-January because of fears that she would not get a majority in parliament in December. Coincidentally January 11 is the day that the long- awaited biopic called ‘Laurel and Hardy’ is due for general cinema release in the UK. Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were an American comedy duo who were very funny and lightened up the lives of us baby boomers growing up in grey, boring and austerity-ridden post Second World War Britain in the 1950S and 60s. Their films were a combination of hilarious slapstick and yet somehow meaningful social comment on mid-twentieth century America. Everything the duo did seemed to go wrong. If they were sent to rewire a house, the house caught on fire. If they were moving house for someone, all the client’s worldly possessions would go rolling off in the removal vehicle and end up in the river. It was always Stan’s fault as Ollie saw it. The burly llie would take off his bowler hat and beat the hapless stick -thin Stan over the head with it, reducing him to tears. Ollie would always end the bashing with the words “Another fine mess you have got us into Stanley”.
Mrs May has got us got us into a really fine mess with her bungling of the Brexit negotiations, but there seems no-one willing or able to bash her gently over the head to get her to change course. Without pushing the parallel with Laurel and Hardy too far, the Brexit saga looks like a case of life imitating art. The story that will be shown in the biopic about them is one of a long and creative partnership that ended badly with a sad split as Hardy went into a personality decline. The Brexit divorce can be seen as pitiful rather than sad; and it is anything but funny as in funny ha! ha! rather than in funny peculiar. In the face of widespread dislike of her deal and the obdurate refusal of the EU to renegotiate– particularly over the Irish Backstop — Mrs May is compounding the chaos. She has now launched a new ‘project fear’ by saying, either back my deal or get a no deal Brexit. She is vigorously pointing out the dire consequences of a no deal including shortages of food and medicines, economic decline, unemployment, a drop in personal incomes, security problems and lots more besides. This campaign has not only seen her take the national interest hostage, but also seen members of parliament scurrying around in all directions like a bunch of headless chickens. Fervent Brexiteers are saying a no-deal Brexit will not be as bad as its opponents have outlined. Remainers of all political persuasions in parliament seem likely to join the growing groundswell in favour of a ‘peoples vote’, aka a second referendum. Mrs May is resolutely against a second referendum. She believes it would do irreparable damage to Britain’s democracy. She says it is her “duty” to deliver on Brexit.
Adam Boulton, the political commentator writing in the Sunday Times said: “May knows a second referendum would render her premiership meaningless……… She will not countenance becoming a jokey footnote in the history books. No deal however unfortunate would still deliver her legacy”. Well, maybe. I am an ardent Remainer and believe the Brexit vote in 2016 was an act of great -harm by the British people. However, I can’t help thinking that Mrs May has a bit of a point. Referenda are truly a daft way to run a country. You cannot resolve complex issues by a simple yes or no, or in or out questions. Countries can tend to have a new referendum if the government of the day does not like the result of the one that went before. Look at Ireland for example. There have been at least four referenda on major EU issues—two on the Treaty of Nice and two on the Treaty of Lisbon. The problem that the UK has is that the groundswell for a second referendum is probably not as great as the polls suggest. There is clearly a lot of support for Brexit. What if a new referendum is called and the result is close, but this time 52 per cent vote for remaining and 48 per cent for leaving. This will sharpen the divisions in British society and cause enormous resentment amongst those who twice voted to leave never mind a possible rise in racist inspired hate crime by those who feel they have been betrayed by the holding of a second referendum. Will we have to hold a third referendum as a decider?
There is an alternative. While the UK will suffer from a no deal Brexit, the EU also has a lot to lose. Exports to the EU from Britain were £274 billion in 2017 (44 per cent of total exports). Imports from the EU, on the other hand, were £341bn (53 per cent of its total exports). Despite what the EU might say about the finality of the agreement Mrs May has reached with them, there is no negotiation that can’t be tinkered with at the last minute. The EU, in fact, has a long history of going right down to the wire on important deals. Mrs May has had rings run around her by the EU negotiators for almost two years. Perhaps now is the time for her finally to do some bluffing and bullying of her own by running some scare stories of her own by the EU negotiators. She only needs to get them to blink once. All she wants and needs is a concession on the Irish backstock – which is really no big deal for the EU in the overall scheme of things. This would probably mean she would gain the support in parliament she needs to get her deal through. Time is short. The next few weeks are likely to be full of frantic activity. ,