Daniel Hannan is an MEP for South-East England, and a journalist, author and broadcaster. His most recent book is What Next: How to Get the Best from Brexit.
Widen the shot to see what is going on. News developments are now battering us so fast that we can become punch-drunk. The contempt motion, the pulled vote, the collapse of Theresa May’s two-year negotiating strategy and now, reportedly, the 48 letters. It can seem overwhelming. But stand back for a moment and look at the big picture. All these events stem from one cause.
In June 2016, 17.4 million of us voted to leave the EU. Although MPs and peers had voted heavily the other way, most of them initially accepted the verdict and initiated the disengagement process. But there were some who refused to accept the verdict. They were not interested in softening Brexit. They wanted to overturn the result.
Some launched campaigns for a second referendum. Some brought legal challenges. Some operated campaign grids, co-ordinating scare stories in a rerun of the 2016 poll. As the months passed, many MPs who had initially been shell-shocked by the result began to see a way to thwart it.
The best way to stop Brexit, they reasoned, was to ensure that the terms on which it was offered were so dreadful that even Leavers would see them as a deterioration of our current position. They encouraged Brussels to take the hardest possible line. “You don’t need to worry that Britain might walk away”, they whispered to Eurocrats. “We’ll make sure that Parliament won’t allow a no-deal Brexit”.
Does that sound like a conspiracy theory? Am I alleging that British politicians would side with EU negotiators against their own country? That they would actively work against a mutually advantageous deal? Yes, that’s precisely what I’m alleging, but it’s not a conspiracy – except possibly in the sense of what H.G. Wells once called “an open conspiracy”. On the contrary, it has been brazen. Two months ago, for example, John Major, Nick Clegg and Michael Heseltine – a former Prime Minister and two former Deputy Prime Ministers – co-authored an article in a German newspaper urging the EU to hang tough. Such is the Kulturkampf that has raged here since the vote that, instead of being disowned by patriotic Remainers, they were applauded.
Not that Eurocrats needed much persuasion. They are accustomed to overturning referendum results, having done so across the EU, from Ireland to Greece. The truly surprising thing – the unforgivable thing, indeed – was the reluctance of our own Government seriously to prepare for a no-deal outcome. As Theresa May swallowed one humiliating demand after another – the sequencing, the non-voting membership period, the money, the backstop – EU negotiators concluded that, in the end, she would sign whatever they put in front of her.
Which brings us to where we are, facing terms that no self-respecting democracy could accept. The EU has made calculatedly vindictive demands: the regulatory annexation of Northern Ireland, unconditional financial transfers, permanent control of UK trade policy. Yet even as it issues those demands, it is careful to let us know that we can always drop the whole idea. As Donald Tusk put it in Buenos Aires, with a knowing smirk, it’s either these terms “or no Brexit”. On cue, and with unprecedented haste, the ECJ declared that we could cancel Article 50 at the stroke of a pen. (In this case, incidentally, there had been no alleged breach of the treaties. A court concerned only with the letter of the law would have ruled it inadmissible. But, of course, Euro-judges have always made up the rules in order to advance the project.)
At least the EU’s strategy – or, if you prefer, Continuity Remain’s strategy – is now in plain sight. The idea is to offer us a choice between Mrs May’s abominable terms and staying in. From a Leave point of view, such a referendum would be – as the Nobel Prizewinning novelist Mario Vargas Llosa once described an election in our native Peru – a choice between AIDS and cancer.
If there is a second referendum, Leavers will surely organise a boycott. Having listened to all the assurances that the 2016 referendum would be final and binding – assurances that were made especially strenuously, funnily enough, by Nick Clegg and John Major – why legitimise a rerun? After all, the people demanding a new referendum are, by definition, people who don’t accept referendum results. So we’d presumably end up with a 99 per cent Remain vote on a turnout of less than 40 per cent, invalidating the whole exercise.
And in the meantime? In the meantime, Britain would have suffered a reputational collapse worse than Suez, having tried and failed to recover its independence. Our democracy would go through its worst trauma since 1832. And – it seems almost a small thing given the scale of the national tragedy, but for what it’s worth – the Conservative Party would be finished.
Is there a way to avert this disaster? Yes. We are where we are as a result of the decisions made by May. She believes in the proposed deal, she tells us, with every fibre of her being. A new Prime Minister could remove the backstop and offer the EU the rest of the Withdrawal Agreement. Brussels would initially reject this proposal, but a different leader might do the one thing that she has not been ready to do, namely prepare, fully and spiritedly, for a no-deal withdrawal – while leaving the offer on the table.
Would the EU junk the most uncontentious elements of the agreement, such as reciprocal rights for each other’s citizens, over a backstop that London, Dublin and Brussels all say they never want to see come into effect anyway? It’s hard to say. Negotiators can be backed into irrational positions. Still, the logic is clear enough. The EU’s choice would be between no backstop and nothing else either; or no backstop and agreement on everything else. At that stage, we might well find some alternative, such as a UK-Ireland bilateral treaty guaranteeing no new border infrastructure.
We still have time to switch course. Just. It’s up to Conservative MPs to decide now.