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