Mulling over the various options for Brexit, the only conclusion I have yet been able to reach is that I don’t want any of them. I don’t want Theresa May’s deal. I don’t want Norway. I don’t want Canada. I don’t want a no-deal exit. I don’t want a second referendum. I don’t want a general election.
I believe that the deal on the table is probably the best that could have been negotiated in the circumstances. But, since the circumstances were that the EU could hold our feet to the fire whenever it chose, that is not saying much. The deal is tolerable only if the political declaration that accompanies it is fully implemented. But it won’t be, as Emmanuel Macron made clear the day after it was announced. Phase 1 of the negotiations consisted of Britain being blackmailed over the threat of no deal. Phase 2 will consist of Britain being blackmailed over the removal of the backstop. We will be shafted.
It is hard for a layman to follow the intricacies involved in the Canada and Norway options, especially when different people offer contradictory opinions. However, Canada would appear neither to solve the problem posed by the Irish border, nor to offer the prospect of frictionless trade with the EU. And the fact that it appears to be a favoured option of the European Research Group damns it in my eyes anyway. I have come to the conclusion that the members of the ERG are political fantasists who know nothing about international trade or how global economies work, and whose judgment cannot be trusted on anything.
As far as Norway is concerned, we don’t yet know if it is even an option. In order to find out, we would first have to pass the withdrawal agreement, which entails promising to hand over £39 billion to the EU, our sole bargaining chip of any value. Only then could we apply to rejoin EFTA and remain within the EEA. Only then will we discover if Norway (whose government would like its country to join the EU) and the others would accept the disruptive presence of Britain in their midst. Even if they did accept us, Norway still seems to offer precisely the worst-of-both-worlds outcome that has always been the danger.
A general election will solve nothing, unless it results in an overwhelming majority for one party, which seems inconceivable. Otherwise, the present impasse will be maintained, whoever wins. If the Conservatives win, there will continue to be three Conservative parliamentary parties: the ultras on both sides and the loyalists. If Labour wins, there will continue to be the same three Labour parliamentary parties.
Although Labour claims to want a general election, it has conspicuously failed to exploit the DUP’s disillusion with the Conservatives. It has had the opportunity to defeat the Government on several clauses of the Budget and hasn’t taken any of them. This cannot be an accident. The suspicion is that Labour has no desire to be saddled with the responsibility for Brexit, and no desire to have an election until Brexit is resolved. At that point, it will hope to benefit from what, by then, might well be the complete discrediting and disintegration of the Conservatives.
As far as a second referendum is concerned, the only people who support it are Remainers, which should tell us something. If the first result is overturned, there will be a huge issue over democratic legitimacy and potentially tumultuous upheaval in the country. If it isn’t overturned, we are back where we are. If referenda have any constructive role in a democracy (a moot point), it is to answer simple questions. The thought that a referendum might be used to choose between different forms of Brexit beggars belief.
Which leaves us with the no-deal option. And, in a way, that is appropriate because it focuses the debate on what has always been the issue at the heart of Brexit – how much short-term pain is bearable for the sake of a long-term gain? For convinced Remainers, of course, there is no long-term gain: it’s a lose-lose situation. But to many people, even to some of us who voted to remain, the decision to leave could prove to be a wise long-term decision. In the short term, though, what are we prepared to endure?
I am in no doubt that the immediate consequence of a no-deal Brexit would be mayhem. Too many informed people, in too many fields of expertise, have said so categorically. Against their views, the bleatings of the ERG fantasists count for nothing. But questions remain. How devastating would the mayhem be? For how long would it last? How much would be irretrievably lost in the meantime?
No one has any sure answers to these questions. Yet they are crucial. A short-lived period of chaos, however frightening to a great many individuals and businesses, might be a price worth paying. One that rumbles on for years, decades even, would not be. As someone who voted to remain principally out of the conviction that the financial risk of leaving was too great, I cannot rationally entertain the thought of a no-deal Brexit, no matter how emotionally appealing it sometimes seems.
I feel that the time has come for me to reach a conclusion on all this. In many blogs on the subject over the past 30 months, my views have see-sawed. I am currently in a position where my opinion is likely to change, not from week to week, not from day to day, but from hour to hour. Perhaps, and very unhappily, I am typical of a large swathe of opinion in the country.
In a week’s time, I may contradict myself entirely. At the moment, what I hope is this. I hope that Parliament votes down the current deal. I hope that there will be further negotiations with the EU (and I think there would be in those circumstances, whatever is said now). To put it crudely, the British threat would then be: if you don’t remove the uncertainty over the Irish backstop, you won’t get your £39 billion.
I think I could support a deal like that. If it can’t be agreed, then God knows.