We’re on the edge of an abyss and MPs are bickering
Let the chronicles of this turbulent time record how the prime minister and leader of the opposition agreed that Britain should leave the European Union, so they argued instead about which channel should host an argument between them. Theresa May wants to defend her Brexit deal on the BBC; Jeremy Corbyn prefers to attack it on ITV. It is the perfect culmination of British politics since the referendum: a confected row over a piece of theatre to avoid a real debate.
Parliament starts hearing arguments over May’s plan today. This should be the final ascent, the peak of a democratic process, but the climb has been a mapless scramble through fog. The view from the summit will not be much clearer than it was in the foothills, when no one had a clue how to untangle EU membership, and only charlatans and fools said it would be easy.
To expect lucidity from May is to ignore her record. This is the prime minister who coined “Brexit means Brexit” – a slogan so exquisitely vacuous it might be conceptual art. She knows no strategy beyond secrecy and the dead bat. Likewise, there is no evidence that Corbyn can bring public insight to a European dilemma. Last week, he was on breakfast television saying that Labour would have time to arrange a new Brexit deal in “a transition period which has already been now agreed”. But transition has been agreed as a condition of the deal Corbyn aims to destroy. What he said was either cynically misleading or frighteningly ill-informed.
Both would be consistent with the pattern of politics since 2016. The referendum did little to inform or elevate national debate on all things European. On balance, the leave campaign was the more duplicitous of the two sides, but that is no reflection on the motive or character of leave voters. Ignorance of the EU was rife among remainers too. Pretty much everyone followed their gut; no one was pondering phytosanitary inspections at busy ports. There was little grasp, on either side, of the strategic magnitude of what was being proposed – not just the uprooting and replanting of the economy, but fracturing the political alliance that has underpinned British foreign policy for a generation.
We conspired to hold a referendum on leaving the EU without a serious conversation about what the EU does. Then, a year later, we got through a general election campaign with little mention of Europe at all. Another year has passed and, despite the urgency of the article 50 clock running out, politics still manages to distract itself with arguments other than the only one worth having, which is this: given what we now know about Brexit that we didn’t know then, should we still do it?
That is not the question on which May and Corbyn would dwell in a televised debate. It isn’t a question that troubles hardline Tory backbenchers running up and down Westminster corridors in pursuit of letters of no confidence in their leader. It isn’t a question that can be answered by publication of the attorney general’s legal advice on the withdrawal agreement. That isn’t to say these things are unimportant. It matters if Geoffrey Cox QC advises that the Irish “backstop” is a trapdoor to perpetual regulatory subordination. But it matters only as confirmation of a structural downside to Brexit that we know already – the imbalance of power between a bloc of 27 states and one quitter.
There is no obscure parliamentary procedure or elegantly crafted amendment that changes the costbenefit equation. May’s Brexit isn’t uniquely, freakishly deleterious to the national interest. It is just Brexit. If that’s what MPs want, they should vote for it. Either the price is worth paying, for whatever reason – a trade deal with Donald Trump, fewer Romanians on the bus, blue passports – or it isn’t.
But I suspect we haven’t finished with displacement activity. There are still a few implausible 11th-hour renegotiations to be demanded. Labour can still call for a general election, without saying what the Brexit chapter in their manifesto would contain. The Tories might squeeze in a leadership contest. Boris Johnson is still at large. It is tempting to decry an excess of game-playing in British public life, but that doesn’t do justice to the debasement. A bit of sporting mischief is a normal aspect of politics. Sometimes the play gets a bit dirty; sometimes we all take our eye off the ball. But in the current climate it feels as if the pitch itself and the goals have been forgotten altogether. Politics has become endless fighting in the stands, while sensible people flee the stadium.
I can see why this spectacle puts people off another referendum. Not much about the past few years promises a festival of reasoned dialogue. But I also want to resist such fatalism. When politicians say that another vote would be divisive and bitter, they are wriggling out from responsibility to raise the tone themselves. They mean they cannot imagine doing politics differently. Actually, it isn’t a warning but a threat: proceed with Brexit or we will degrade your public discourse even further. Submission to that menace is not a good reason to leave the EU, it just adds to the list of bad ones.
Maybe it is fanciful to imagine a different kind of campaign, one that would rehabilitate responsible political debate. In more optimistic moments, I hope there is one more chapter in the Brexit chronicle, written in a style more befitting the seriousness of the question. Otherwise what is the story being told about our democracy? We bickered for years on the edge of an abyss, then dropped wearily in because we could no longer trust ourselves to discuss the merit in jumping.
At the 11th hour the pitch and the goals have been forgotten and politics has become endless fighting in the stands