It’s time for May to put her deal to the peo­ple

The Observer - - Comment & Analysis -

The choice fac­ing MPs on Tues­day – whether to ap­prove the terms of Bri­tain’s exit from the EU ne­go­ti­ated by the prime minister – is the most im­por­tant post­war de­ci­sion parliament has con­fronted. It will ir­re­vo­ca­bly shape our na­tion’s fu­ture, Bri­tain’s sta­tus and in­flu­ence in the world, our eco­nomic com­pet­i­tive­ness and the rights of fu­ture gen­er­a­tions to live, study and work across a con­ti­nent. Theresa May’s lose-lose deal looks to be head­ing for re­sound­ing re­jec­tion. But there is a risk this will plunge the coun­try into con­sti­tu­tional chaos: a gov­ern­ment sus­pended in place by the Fixed-term Par­lia­ments Act, but un­able to of­fer con­struc­tive lead­er­ship.

The way out of any such mess lies in the hands of May her­self. She must re­sist the in­evitable calls to re­sign in the wake of a big de­feat: to walk away would be a mon­u­men­tal dere­lic­tion of duty. In­stead, she must lead the coun­try to­wards the only way out of this grid­lock: she must put the deal she has ne­go­ti­ated to the peo­ple. The case – and sup­port – for a ref­er­en­dum on Bri­tain’s exit deal has only grown stronger since the Ob­server first ar­tic­u­lated it nearly two years ago. The 2016 ref­er­en­dum re­sult did not cre­ate some im­mutable “will of the peo­ple”. The only de­tailed man­date it pro­vided ex­isted in the fan­tasies of the leave cam­paigns: that we could seize back con­trol in a 21st-cen­tury, in­ter­con­nected world, in do­ing so mak­ing our­selves richer and free­ing up cash for pub­lic ser­vices, all the while pre­serv­ing the sanc­tity of the union.

Noth­ing bet­ter il­lus­trates the delu­sional na­ture of the prom­ises leavers made to vot­ers than May’s deal. This isn’t some poorly ne­go­ti­ated ver­sion of Brexit: it is the best deal she could have achieved given her mis­con­ceived red line to end free­dom of move­ment of peo­ple while safe­guard­ing peace in North­ern Ire­land. It em­bod­ies the in­evitable price for lim­it­ing im­mi­gra­tion from the rest of the EU (which our age­ing pop­u­la­tion struc­ture any­way dic­tates we should be en­cour­ag­ing): Bri­tain be­com­ing a rule taker, for­feit­ing the in­flu­en­tial role it has played in shap­ing EU law, and at great eco­nomic cost, to the tune of tens of bil­lions a year. This is the re­al­ity that Brexit en­tails, and vot­ers de­serve a say on whether it’s what they want.

On a prac­ti­cal level, there ap­pears no other way for­ward. The fail­ure of political lead­er­ship does not start and end with a prime minister who, a hostage to the Eu­roscep­tic right flank of her party, spent months chan­nelling their claims that there would barely be a price to pay for leav­ing the EU. Too many MPs – from the hard Brex­iters to the Labour lead­er­ship – are still liv­ing in a fan­tasy world where the prob­lem is that May just didn’t try hard enough to catch the prized uni­corn. So a gen­eral elec­tion, Labour’s pre­ferred route out of the quag­mire, would achieve lit­tle in mov­ing us for­wards. There is no ap­par­ent par­lia­men­tary ma­jor­ity in favour of one sin­gle op­tion, not even the so-called “Nor­way-plus” – vastly in­fe­rior to the sta­tus quo of re­main­ing.

So vot­ers must be given the chance to en­dorse May’s deal, or re­ject it in favour of re­main­ing within the EU. There are no other cred­i­ble op­tions. Brus­sels has made clear that the only route to a free trade deal is through the with­drawal agree­ment, with the back­stop as in­sur­ance to guar­an­tee an open Ir­ish bor­der, so to put a Canada-style op­tion on the bal­lot would be to plunge ne­go­ti­a­tions into chaos. Nei­ther should crash­ing out with no deal be on it: to of­fer it would amount to ask­ing the Bri­tish pub­lic if they want to un­ravel the Good Fri­day agree­ment.

The hard Brex­iters long ago ab­sorbed the lan­guage of pop­ulists; even as they warn of the po­ten­tial for civil un­rest in the event of a ref­er­en­dum, they seek to stir it up, ac­cus­ing MPs of try­ing to “steal” Brexit from the peo­ple. It’s an ab­surd po­si­tion: these are the peo­ple who wanted to leave the EU so parliament could take back con­trol, but now de­nounce par­lia­men­tar­i­ans for thwart­ing an imag­i­nary, im­mutable “will of the peo­ple”.

There is no doubt that pop­ulists will use a ref­er­en­dum as an op­por­tu­nity to sow fur­ther ha­tred and di­vi­sion. But they must be taken on, not ca­pit­u­lated to. Politi­cians must not run scared of what’s right, not least be­cause the risk of a pop­ulist-cul­ti­vated back­lash lies at the end of ev­ery pos­si­ble path. Nor­way-plus – Bri­tain giv­ing up its say in EU law, but still be­ing sub­ject to it – would only give fur­ther suc­cour to Euroscep­tics. Far from im­prov­ing peo­ple’s prospects, the eco­nomic cost of May’s deal would only com­pound the ef­fects of decades of dein­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion and lack of in­vest­ment in many leave-vot­ing ar­eas of the coun­try.

Those who be­lieve re­main­ing in the EU is the best way of ad­dress­ing the con­cerns of many leave vot­ers must make a pos­i­tive case, which ar­tic­u­lates why striv­ing for 19th-cen­tury-style na­tional sovereignty is an ab­sur­dity in a 21st-cen­tury world where the only way to tackle global chal­lenges such as cor­po­rate tax avoid­ance, in­ter­na­tional crime, ter­ror­ism and cli­mate change is through in­ter­na­tional co­op­er­a­tion. And why stay­ing in would gen­er­ate a huge div­i­dend that can be spent on im­prov­ing the NHS and reskilling peo­ple who lose their jobs be­cause of tech­no­log­i­cal change.

Given the ab­ject lack of political lead­er­ship in West­min­ster, the peo­ple have a right to ac­cept or re­ject May’s deal. Re­spon­si­ble politi­cians who care about the na­tional in­ter­est will then have the fight of their life to per­suade vot­ers that to set­tle for May’s deal would be to sleep­walk into an act of na­tional self-harm.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.