May must seek an al­liance in the Com­mons for a softer Brexit. It is there to find

The Guardian - Journal - - Front page -

Un­der nor­mal cir­cum­stances, a govern­ment with vi­tal laws to pass in a short space of time would get a move on. But not much about Brexit is nor­mal. The clock is tick­ing, yet the bill to en­able an or­derly with­drawal next March is ma­rooned.

Peers voted for amend­ments to soften the char­ac­ter of Brexit. Uncer­tain of how this will play out in the lower cham­ber, the govern­ment last week de­clined to send the bill straight there as would be usual prac­tice. And it isn’t only the with­drawal bill in limbo. Bills on cus­toms and trade are frozen in early stages of the process. Last year’s Queen’s speech promised bills on fish­eries, farm­ing and im­mi­gra­tion, of which there is as yet no sign.

In the au­tumn, par­lia­ment is sup­posed to vote on a mo­tion to ap­prove the terms of with­drawal ne­go­ti­ated by Theresa May and a dec­la­ra­tion of in­tent cov­er­ing the broad frame­work for post-Brexit trade. The with­drawal deal must also be en­acted via an im­ple­men­ta­tion bill, run­ning the full gaunt­let of pri­mary leg­is­la­tion.

MPs will strug­gle to get through this log­jam in a way that per­mits due dili­gence on the most am­bi­tious and dan­ger­ous un­der­tak­ing by any Bri­tish govern­ment since the sec­ond world war. If Mrs May tries to force Brexit through in this fash­ion she will be ask­ing MPs for a blank po­lit­i­cal cheque; to sign off on a fu­ture shrouded in a dense fog of un­cer­tainty.

What be­gan as mis­for­tune is evolv­ing into a des­per­ate tac­tic by the prime min­is­ter. By leav­ing ev­ery­thing to the last minute, she narrows the op­tions, bet­ting that par­lia­ment will have to ac­qui­esce since the al­ter­na­tives would risk po­lit­i­cal, eco­nomic and con­sti­tu­tional melt­down. In a news­pa­per ar­ti­cle yes­ter­day, Mrs May asked for pub­lic trust on Brexit, but can’t or won’t ex­plain how she means to break the cur­rent dead­lock. This is not the way govern­ment busi­ness of the high­est ur­gency should be con­ducted. But Mrs May feels trapped. She can­not get her cabi­net to agree on tech­ni­cal as­pects of Brexit nor even on the fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ples that would lead to tech­ni­cal so­lu­tions. And she doesn’t have a ma­jor­ity in par­lia­ment for the kind of Brexit – out­side the cus­toms union, out­side the sin­gle mar­ket – that many of her back­bench MPs and key min­is­ters de­mand.

Th­ese look like two prob­lems – a split party and a hung par­lia­ment – but they are in fact one.

Or, rather, viewed through a non-party lens, a sin­gle so­lu­tion comes into view. There is an avail­able par­lia­men­tary ma­jor­ity for a dif­fer­ent Brexit, a much softer model that starts from the eco­nom­i­cally ra­tio­nal base of cus­toms union and sin­gle mar­ket mem­ber­ship. The readi­ness of politi­cians from across party lines to sup­port such a po­si­tion will be un­der­lined in a joint in­ter­ven­tion to­day by Nick Clegg, for­mer Lib­eral Demo­crat leader,

David Miliband, for­mer Labour for­eign sec­re­tary, and Nicky Mor­gan, Tory chair of the Trea­sury se­lect com­mit­tee. None of them speaks for the whole of their re­spec­tive par­ties, but they do ex­press a view that would win the sup­port of a larger par­lia­men­tary caucus than the one that Mrs May could whip be­hind a more hard­line anti-EU prospec­tus.

If the prime min­is­ter were to change course, the hard­lin­ers would de­nounce her for be­tray­ing pro-Brexit vot­ers. They would be wrong in law and prin­ci­ple. Any­thing that ends full UK mem­ber­ship of the EU is a valid Brexit and par­tial de­tach­ment would be a more demo­cratic ex­pres­sion of the close ref­er­en­dum re­sult than to­tal sev­er­ance. The 2016 vote does not pro­hibit a soft Brexit. The 2017 gen­eral elec­tion re­sult de­mands one by virtue of par­lia­men­tary arith­metic alone. To de­liver it, the prime min­is­ter would have to re­lin­quish the sup­port of the most fa­nat­i­cal Tory caucus, but she could make up the num­bers with sup­port from op­po­si­tion MPs.

There are enough who would see it as their pa­tri­otic duty to set aside tribal al­le­giance and help the prime min­is­ter res­cue the coun­try from its cur­rent de­struc­tive tra­jec­tory. The ques­tion is whether Mrs May has the courage and imag­i­na­tion to bro­ker such a deal. The ev­i­dence of her past be­hav­iour sug­gests not, yet the logic of the cur­rent Brexit im­passe leaves no bet­ter op­tion.

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