James Arnell is a partner at Charterhouse. He writes in a personal capacity.
Finally, the storm has really hit. There has been plenty of political electricity in the air for a while now, but we are now really entering the endgame of Brexit. It was always going to be a last minute scramble, and we are currently in the early hours of the morning when deals get signed or, if the parties are not very careful, they fall apart.
The formal deadline has been and gone, but the real deadline was always going to be those European elections in May. We are not quite there yet, but to watch the frenzy in the Parliamentary corridors, you’d think we were.
The EU’s common stance is beginning to fracture, with differences emerging between Macron, Merkel and Varadkar, and Merkel is finally breaking cover on the perverse logic of the backstop, pointing out that the imperative for peace in Ireland will require creativity and flexibility whether there is a deal or not.
Meanwhile, Cooper, Letwin et al have finally managed to get past the blank rounds and find a bullet in the chamber, with their narrow victory to rule out No Deal.
What a strange situation: our Parliament ruling out No Deal, while Merkel rules out a hard border even if there is No Deal.
Emotions are running high, which is rather dispiriting. In any complicated negotiation, there is no room for emotion and there is no point in being “right” at the expense of failing to achieve your objective. Brexiteers (and probably most of the readers of this piece) are fuming, but this indignation leads nowhere. We are where we are.
What should those who support Brexit in Government and Parliament do now? They should not be raging or resigning. They should be calculating.
And if they take a few minutes and a few deep breaths, they will, I think, realise that they have two choices:
First, and most obviously, the ERG could get behind May’s deal and just get it done. Why not? The backstop? A nation state will not be kept in a backstop it does not want to be kept in. It will find a way out of it, one way or another. And until it does, the relatively comfortable position offered by the backstop will give us a lot of leverage in trade deals with the US and others. We will be able to say to Trump: “to implement this trade deal, we will have to go into bat with the EU to get ourselves out of the backstop. We can do that, but we are only willing to do that if you offer us a decent deal.” That’s helpful negotiating leverage.
So, Bill Cash, Steve Baker et al should think again. They should lay the swords and shields down and re-embrace their colleagues. They have fought the good fight. Many will respect them for it. But if they didn’t think they were screwing up our chance of Brexit, they must surely know now. They will not be thanked for it, they will be pilloried for it.
The other option is to face reality, the same reality which has dogged the Government throughout: if they keep taking things to a Remainer parliament, they will keep getting rejected until they are in a form which is broadly equivalent to remaining. The logical conclusion? They need to take things to another decision-making body. There is only one: the public.
A second referendum, supported by the Government and the Conservative Party, could get a majority in Parliament. The key is to set its terms correctly, and to commit to it as the least worst option. The time to do so is now. By accepting this now, the Government can shape the question. Keeping this control over the question is absolutely key to holding the Party and its base together.
The Government and Conservative Party should pivot now to putting a two-question referendum to the public:
1. Leave versus Remain
2. May deal versus no deal
Then play it out:
If the country votes Leave, it will almost certainly vote for the May deal. Remainers will all choose this option, as will a proportion of Leavers. The Government achieves its objective. The hard Brexiteers can campaign for No Deal. They will be able to stick to their views and seek to convince voters to follow them. I think May’s deal will be chosen, but no one would need to go against their principles. The voters would decide.
If the country votes Remain, there are two scenarios: if there is a large margin of victory, the decision can probably be considered as final and the will of the people can be considered settled for a while, at least until any future major changes in the EU. If the margin is narrow, it will probably lead to conflict as the “referendum score” will be one-all. A new Tory Prime Minister will then have the option of calling an election on the platform of a third referendum supporting a No Deal Brexit. I predict that, by then, the Labour Party will have split over the direction to take on the second referendum. The Tories will be well positioned to campaign on a “tie break” manifesto. The Brexit dream can live on for a while longer.
That pivot needs to happen now. Because the choice we now face is between certain failure to achieve the objective of a true Brexit and the alternative: a referendum route (suitably framed) which offers a 50/50 chance, followed by another 50/50 chance in a third referendum. Those are the best odds on offer.
When the board changes you have to change your game. But when the board is stacked against you, you also have to be ready to change the board.