One day it is the chaos caused by MPs suddenly realising what scientists have been warning about for months, that leaving the nuclear regulatory agency Euratom will cause serious disruption to the energy industry and to healthcare. The next day it may be a panic over the European Arrest Warrant. There are thousands – simply thousands – of these chasms about to open in front of us as we negotiate Brexit, and the Government seems determined to pratfall noisily into every one of them. All the while, the EU is quietly getting on with the business of making new relationships with the rest of the world, even as we petulantly tear up ours.
While the two main UK political parties jostle to see which of them can offer the hardest and most calamitous Brexit, the mood in the nation at large has moved on. The talk of Brexit has shifted, from how brilliant it is, to how damaging it is, to how can we stop this?
With the tide of opinion turning and polls now consistently showing a majority preference for Remain, the first party to call for a halt to this madness is the party that will gain all the capital from it. So who will blink first; which party will choose the red pill? Let’s take a look at the prospects.
At first glance, it doesn’t look hopeful for the Tories.
The Tories’ usual approach in all their dealings is to adopt an air of easy, urbane superciliousness. They’ve been dismayed to learn their pinstripe preening doesn’t work in negotiations with the EU, and neither has their fall-back position of stubbornly refusing to look facts in the eye until those facts give up and go away. They are starting to realise this Brexit lark isn’t quite as easy as it looked when they started.
They’re also finding themselves in the uncomfortable position of realising that all the negotiations are going on in full view of the public, and that the skills they need on this occasion are tact, diplomacy and a little empathy.
Unfortunately, tact, diplomacy and empathy haven’t been survival traits in the Conservative party recently. They’ve been progressively selected out of the talent pool, in a party where advancement has been over the splintered bones of all rivals.
Tory Brexiters are typified by political botflies Michael Gove and Jacob Rees-Mogg. They probably don’t really have much of an ideological attachment to Brexit itself. They are free market freebooters, who think there’s far too much regulation holding back the right and noble aspirations of all good people: the single-minded pursuit of self-enrichment. They’re not concerned with how history may judge their actions, so long as the cheque clears. So they don’t really care if we’re in the EU or not.
They see Brexit, and the Great Repeal Bill that will shape our post-Brexit legal landscape, as an opportunity to create a “bonfire” of environmental, housing and employment protections. Given recent events, the word seems bleakly appropriate. For these people, nothing short of the hardest of Brexits will suit their aims.
But the Tories as a whole retain a strong sense of self preservation, and they understand well that in order to shape the country they have to be in power. Their pay-per-objectionable-view alliance with the DUP props up the slimmest of majorities, getting slimmer with every racist gaffe. Given a stark choice between unpalatable alternatives, they can at least usually be relied upon to choose the option that causes themselves the least harm.
The moment it becomes clear that continuing with Brexit is going to harm the Tories even more than the humiliation of calling it off, they’ll swing in an instant towards remaining in the EU. Oh, they’ll find somebody else to blame for the U-turn, and they’ll still have internal struggles with their hard-line Brexiters, but they will find a way to make the change.
We can expect no such flibbertigibbeting from the Labour party, because Jeremy Corbyn has Principles.
Right now, Corbyn is living his perfect moment, like a third form Geography teacher who has just spotted a pupil simultaneously running in the corridors and chewing gum. His current poll ratings and relative election success have cemented his leadership, and His Principles immunise him from all challenge. He can’t be bargained with, he can’t be reasoned with, and he absolutely will not stop, ever.
There is every reason to believe Labour’s voters continue to be strongly remain-leaning, and that much of their new support in the recent election came from people who wanted to head off the hard Brexit offered by the Tories. But there is no evidence that Labour’s leadership are any more inclined to take advantage of an opportunity to remain than the most hard-line Tory Brexiters.
There is a lot of wishful thinking spilling around at the moment, trying to build a narrative that Jeremy Corbyn is secretly a Remainer, and just biding his time before he rips open his crumpled shirt to reveal a giant ‘R’ emblazoned on the string vest beneath. This viewpoint is exemplified by Billy Bragg, Corbyn’s unisex chip-shop cheerleader, who takes to Twitter to explain how open opposition to Brexit is currently impossible, but if we just wait…
It doesn’t take much investigation to see this doesn’t ring true. Corbyn has consistently voted against pro-EU measures over the years, against the Common Market, and against the Maastricht and Lisbon Treaties. If he genuinely was secretly keeping his powder dry, he wouldn’t have called for the immediate triggering of Article 50 after the referendum result was declared. He wouldn’t have set about systematically dismantling every means available to his party to halt or control Brexit at any stage, whipping his MPs to vote for the Article 50 triggering Bill regardless of what was in it. He wouldn’t have sacked members of his front bench for having the temerity to try to limit Brexit’s damage.
If Corbyn were secretly anti-Brexit but playing along until the time was right, he should by now have declared his party’s preparedness to halt the process if it ever became clear that it was going off the rails. We have seen no such thing, and instead he has given himself no room in which to pivot and still appear consistent. No, the best we can expect from Corbyn is a tweet on 1st April 2019 saying “The real fight starts now.”
We can take no comfort from Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer’s bland assertions about achieving the exact same benefits from Brexit as we have now, nor from the broader Labour “jobs first” sloganeering. These platitudes are no more realistic than the Tories “having your cake and eating it” Brexit. Labour has no excuse here, since they’ve just spent most of the last year watching the Tories get punished for the same arrogant refusal to grasp reality. The only way they can now claim they oppose “hard Brexit” is by redefining the term.
“I don’t think anyone is likely to follow us down this route,” admitted Brexit Secretary David Davis to the European Union Select Committee this week. This candid statement is a signal of just how far we have come since the sunlit uplands of a year ago.
Now MPs and the media are openly discussing the possibility that Brexit may not happen at all. At the moment, this is still couched as a potential Tory failure to deliver. In actual fact all the Tories need to do is wait for the next twenty months or so and voilà! There’s your Brexit. So it is perhaps not helpful to treat this like a playground dare, and accuse the Tories of being too chicken to fall off the cliff, since they may still do just that, taking the country with them.
Brexit may result in the splintering of the Conservative party – ironic considering David Cameron’s motives for calling the referendum in the first place – or it may not. Opposing Brexit may save the Labour party, or it may not. What is clear is that if Brexit is to be halted it will need co-operation across the spectrum from MPs prepared to put the needs of the country before party politics. The formation of a cross-party group of MPs opposed to hard Brexit is a good start at an alternative direction, but it needs to go much further, and set out its stall with a clear declaration that Brexit must be halted altogether.
Time is running out. Businesses are leaving. People are leaving. Crops risk going unpicked. Productivity and pay have stalled. The European medicine and banking agencies, long based in the UK, are preparing to leave. The financial cost is already in the billions, the human cost incalculable.
But, if successful, it could be possible to consign Brexit to the history books as a lesson in national folly; a testament to a time when a small group of self-interested sharks managed to convince millions of us that our neighbour was our enemy and our laws were a millstone rather than our shield.
Negotiation timeline graphic by Alexis Taylor