Pro-Europe MPs will never be thanked for back­ing Brexit

The Guardian - Journal - - Front page - Rafael Behr

Brexit ex­presses a part of what it means to be Bri­tish, al­beit not the part any­one who cam­paigned for it had in mind. It is the na­tional ten­dency to find sat­is­fac­tion in be­ing dis­sat­is­fied. It is the spirit of pic­nics in the rain and self­con­grat­u­la­tion for hav­ing stuck with a plan long af­ter it stopped mak­ing sense. It looks in­creas­ingly plau­si­ble that Theresa May will com­plete a deal that pleases no one and is ap­proved by par­lia­ment any­way. The out­line is com­ing into fo­cus. To keep the Ir­ish bor­der fric­tion-free, the UK will be locked into max­i­mal reg­u­la­tory align­ment with Brus­sels. There will be some dodgy es­cape clause, sold to Tory Euroscep­tics as a fu­ture por­tal to the myth­i­cal global trade utopia of Canada-plus.

That model would be too soft for the hard nuts and too hard for the soft­ies. It would launch the UK into an outer-Euro­pean or­bit with­out a seat at mis­sion con­trol. It would be worse than EU mem­ber­ship, but less wan­tonly self-de­struc­tive than break­ing off the talks and run­ning at next March’s cliff edge. Some Tory clif­fjumpers (with their own pri­vate fi­nan­cial parachutes) will re­ject any deal. Their num­ber is un­cer­tain but prob­a­bly enough for Down­ing Street to need votes from Labour MPs who like nei­ther Brexit nor May. Why should they, or the pro-Euro­pean Tories who agree with them, bail the prime min­is­ter out? The an­swer is fear – of no-deal chaos and of con­stituents who just want out. No quib­bling over terms and con­di­tions.

The sole merit in May’s model will be its avail­abil­ity. It will be an An­gus Steak­house of Brex­its – the unin­spir­ing place you end up in be­cause it’s there, and you’re hun­gry and tired of walk­ing in cir­cles look­ing for an elu­sive des­ti­na­tion to sat­isfy ev­ery­one in your party. The al­ter­na­tive is to hold out for some­thing bet­ter at the risk of get­ting some­thing worse. Here the pro-Euro­pean camp splits. On one side are those who say the only way to avoid the point­less cost of Brexit is by call­ing it off, which re­quires an­other ref­er­en­dum. On the other side are those who see the so­cial im­pact of a ref­er­en­dum as costlier than the eco­nomic hit of an or­derly Brexit.

This de­bate among for­mer re­main­ers is now the most im­por­tant bat­tle in Bri­tish pol­i­tics, and it tran­scends tra­di­tional party al­le­giance. It cen­tres not on whether leav­ing the EU is a good idea but on whether it has to be done any­way, in di­luted form, as the fare for mov­ing the na­tion on. The dilemma: gam­ble on a peo­ple’s vote, reignit­ing a hor­ri­ble cul­ture war with no guar­an­tee of vic­tory; or con­cede de­feat with the con­so­la­tion prize of a cus­toms union.

An­other ref­er­en­dum is a tough sell when peo­ple can still taste the bit­ter­ness of the last one. The 2016 poll was held in a fog of ig­no­rance and mis­in­for­ma­tion. Al­le­ga­tions of fraud in the fi­nanc­ing of the pro-Brexit ma­chine are rea­son enough for some to de­mand a re­match. But the re­luc­tant Brex­iters worry that re­main ar­gu­ments still sound con­de­scend­ing to many leavers’ ears. The re­main mes­sage is vul­ner­a­ble to car­i­ca­ture as a sneer that stupid racists got the ques­tion wrong and must re­sit the exam un­til they give the right an­swer.

Mil­lions of vot­ers saw Brexit as a once-in-a-gen­er­a­tion de­mand for change, unique and ir­re­versible. If MPs are think­ing of re­vers­ing it, they’d bet­ter have a bloody good sense of what they are of­fer­ing in­stead. Any­thing that looks like restora­tion of a West­min­ster an­cien régime could stoke a rage to shake the foun­da­tions of Bri­tish democ­racy. But a back­lash is not averted by go­ing through with Brexit. There is no chance of May’s deal meet­ing ev­ery (or any) ad­ver­tised ben­e­fit of quit­ting the EU, so those who mis­sold the ad­ven­ture will start par­celling out blame, di­rect­ing none at them­selves. Re­main­ers might fear re­open­ing painful di­vi­sions, but Brex­i­teers have shown no in­ter­est in na­tional heal­ing. Theirs is the Trumpesque pol­i­tics of salt­ing wounds and scor­ing the howls of pain into na­tion­al­ist march­ing songs.

Boris John­son, Ja­cob Rees-Mogg, Nigel Farage, Ar­ron Banks – these are cow­ards who flee re­spon­si­bil­ity for de­ci­sions they urge on oth­ers. They long ago re­nounced own­er­ship of any prac­ti­cal Brexit out­come. It was never their in­ten­tion to pre­side over the en­act­ment of their men­da­cious cam­paigns and it is not their in­ten­tion to lay down arms once the UK is out of the EU. They look for­ward to the day when May’s model has failed so they can steer the en­su­ing griev­ance to­wards scape­goats closer to home than Brus­sels.

Here, then, are some ques­tions for pro-Euro­peans who do not want to face the Brexit con­men in an­other ref­er­en­dum: do you re­ally think John­son-Farag­ism is an un­beat­able propo­si­tion or will you dare to take it on? When? If you sur­ren­der the trench of EU mem­ber­ship, where do you re­treat to fight again? If you let Brexit pass be­cause you were afraid to ar­gue from prin­ci­ple that it is a mis­take, what will your ar­gu­ment be when the mis­take is found out?

The temp­ta­tion to set­tle for any­thing the prime min­is­ter brings home will be great. The lure of a re­turn to pol­i­tics that isn’t about Europe is strong. It is also a mi­rage. Hard leavers will hate May’s deal, but they will be re­laxed if for­mer re­main­ers want to pull the trig­ger that kills EU mem­ber­ship. Those suck­ers will own the terms of Brexit with­out ever hav­ing be­lieved in the goal. Then the peo­ple who should most take re­spon­si­bil­ity for the mess that fol­lows will laugh as they heap blame on the MPs who thought it was a bad idea and, for rea­sons his­tory will strug­gle to ad­mire, did it any­way.


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