The crunch point is coming. The spectre of defeat looms large, though who it’ll come for first is unclear.
Who will give up their Brexit vision first? My bet, and it’s not especially original, is that the first victim of the Brexit endgame will be the ERG and their hardline Brexiteer buddies. Indeed, I think some of them have more or less resigned themselves to this fate – Jacob Rees Mogg has softened his tone considerably in the past days on what he’d find acceptable on the backstop. Having once demanded its complete replacement, moving later to a unilateral exit mechanism or time limit, he has recently arrived at the position of a codicil or supporting document being a possible price for his acquiescence.
The shift is notable, and has led to some proclaiming Rees-Mogg a moderate amongst the ERG types, with Steve Baker at the other end of the spectrum, unmoved by reality and dogmatic as ever. Must there come a point where the irrationalism ends and the Baker types realise their continued opposition makes an extension and even a people’s vote more likely? Will they ask themselves the question that really matters ahead of next week’s votes: would it be better for May’s deal, which I hate, or a people’s vote, which I’d hate even more? We shall see.
For should May’s deal be rejected – as expected – on Tuesday, we are within hours of extending Article 50. Parliament will vote on the 14th as to whether it wants to extend for no more than two months, with the extension ending just before the European Parliament elections. What had until last week been unthinkable to May was forced upon her by the trio in her cabinet who had threatened to resign should she not move to allow Parliament to block a No Deal. Despite saying over 100 times that we’d be leaving on 29th March, most people now see it as near-inevitable that we’ll need some sort of extension. May has taken the first step to admitting that eventuality now too.
But even if we extend Article 50, aren’t we simply imposing another cliff-edge and merely postponing a No Deal eventuality? Quite possibly. The problem with a short extension, though necessary, is that we’ve had nearly three years to come to an agreement on what the basic principles of leaving might mean. Why would another few months make any difference? The EU understand that a short extension at the outset is necessary; we’re nowhere near ready to leave on the 20th, even if by some magical chance the deal passes before this. But what they’d hate – and who can blame them?! – would be a series of short extensions where we kick the can further and further down the road, prolonging the uncertainty and deepening divisions without an end in sight.
Extensions are, and will remain for some time, preferable to No Deal. But they will not be a route to the EU changing their mind and deciding that the Withdrawal Agreement can be magically reopened. ERG accolades know this. The DUP know this. And while crashing out without a deal – with the catastrophic disruption and painful economic fallout sure to follow – is still not ruled out entirely, the Spelman-Dromey amendment, passed by 318 votes to 310 did prove that there’s no majority in Parliament for a No Deal.
By the governments own forecasts, a No Deal would shave between 7-10% off our GDP. This is far higher in regions such as the North East, where they can expect a hit of up to 16%. Its unsurprising then that if the May sought to whip her MPs against voting for an extension next week to avoid No Deal she can expect a host of resignations. Boris Johnson himself said a week before the referendum that to leave without a deal would be ‘insane’.
Even with an extension, there’s still no majority for an alternative. Stopping a No Deal eventuality requires a proactive decision about an alternative. We could have a general election, but I see this as less likely: it wouldn’t solve the Brexit impasse – far from it – and since Corbyn lost his confidence vote its been largely considered out of the picture. The emergence of The Independent Group makes the prospect of an election far less appealing for Labour, and the Brexit policy on the manifestos of both parties would surely lead to an irrevocable split.
You also could’ve had Norway+, or a softer Brexit, but we’re at the end of the road now and May’s deal is the only Brexit option on the table. It helps nobody to continue talk of hypotheticals now. No other form has been negotiated so you’re most likely left with May’s deal or a people’s vote.
May’s deal falls so far short of what we were promised in 2016. With fewer opportunities and lower living standards, it’s no wonder Britain’s showing signs of buyer’s regret. No form of Brexit is better than our current deal in the European Union. If this wasn’t clear before the referendum it is abundantly clear now. And no Brexit deal will stop this mess going on forever. When MPs reject the Prime Minister’s deal once more next week, it’s time to have a proper conversation about the only viable alternative: a people’s vote.