Time to stop the charade

The PM should recognise that no available option has a democratic mandate, and seek one

Whatever else could be said of the Prime Minister’s Withdrawal Agreement, it has achieved one seemingly impossible task: that of uniting CGE’s chairman, Rt Hon Dominic Grieve QC MP, with his internal polar opposites from the ERG. There is not a hair’s breadth between them in their assessment that the Withdrawal Agreement cherry-picks from each of their ideals and moulds the parts into a uniquely worst-of-all-worlds Dog’s Brexit in which the UK remains inside the EU without a vote.

Indeed, the only people who have ever voted for the Withdrawal Agreement are party loyalist MPs who want to support the Prime Minister and be rid of the whole sorry affair. That is understandable, although we will not be “rid” of it in the long term if we pass a bad deal.

Rather than trying to force the deal through again, the Prime Minister needs to reflect on why the deal, or any other solution, is unable to command support: because no currently available Brexit option has a democratic mandate; proceeding with any option as if it does is a ridiculous charade that needs to stop quickly before the UK makes a huge permanent constitutional change for which nobody has voted.

The Prime Minister’s Withdrawal Agreement, we are told, by its backers, is about implementing the 2016 referendum result – which they tell us was about sovereignty - through a deal that gives us far less latitude over own affairs than we had before. Tick the box, we have “left” (the decision-making table only).

Next up, No Deal. Brexiteers cannot say with one voice that this has a democratic mandate, just as they cannot do so on the Withdrawal Agreement. Vote Leave’s mastermind Dominic Cummings recommended that the Leave campaign “swerve” (his words) the whole issue of our future relationship with the EU and lie about Turkey and money instead. Hence, leading figures from the Leave campaign like Michael Gove will argue that May’s Deal / No Deal is / is not what the Leave campaign promised while others like Boris Johnson argue that it is not / is.  

Pretending for a second that No Deal is a practical option – that even starting three years ago, it would have been possible to prepare to rip up 100,000 pages of legal agreements containing rights and freedoms that people and businesses take for granted every day, not replace them with anything, and not expect complete chaos – Gove is right. The Leave campaign promised us that a trade deal with the EU would be one of the easiest in history, never talked about a No Deal Brexit, never prepared people for a border problem to solve, and told us that individuals’ and businesses’ relations with Europe would be little different to the status quo…unless we remained, in which case we could expect millions of Turks represented by threatening “Dad’s Army” style arrows pointed at Blighty.

And here we start to see the underlying problem. The Leave option in 2016 was mostly undefined and, to the extent that it was defined, it was a fantasy Brexit in which we could keep our seamless relationship with Europe – which includes the Republic of Ireland – while making our own rules and signing our own trade deals where the EU has failed to do so. It’s impossible to tell whether any of the real options would have won or lost against Remain.

The problem is not that the Prime Minister negotiated a bad deal when a better one was achievable. It is that she negotiated a real deal, a genuinely available and deliverable option. Which has no support. The ERG hate it, because they still prefer their fantasy Brexit. Labour want their version, which is little different to the PM’s except with a general election, and which has no mandate.

It’s not right to revoke article 50 – we don’t know that there is a mandate for that – but there is also no mandate for any real, fully defined, currently available option.

So it is not time for a second referendum. It is time for a first referendum – an Informed Vote – on the real options that we now know exist.

Martin Smith is a strategy consultant for Fortune 500 companies and previously a lobbyist in Westminster and Brussels for UK small business organisations, as well as a researcher for a think tank and an MP. He is a former Vice Chairman of EDS, the European centre-right group to which the Young Conservative Group for Europe belongs.