The EU elections produced a clear result. The choice now facing the country is either to remain a full member of the EU or crash-out to a very parlous future. The performance of the parties with a clear anti or pro Brexit message compared to the abysmal showing of those advocating a soft Brexit – the Tories and Labour – was decisive. The iniquitous Nigel Farage was triumphal. Not for him any concern for the livelihoods of millions as he continues to deceive with his crashing-out, WTO option. I doubt that his MEPs, given their diverse ideologies, agree on much other than Nigel’s vanity project and like him they seem to share a distain for facts, erudition and national welfare. The Brexit Party offers only angry emotion and strife: voters are either patriots or traitors. If this motley crew of Brexit MEPs had a shed of decency they would refuse to take up their seats in the European Parliament – after all it is an institution they claim to despise and by their own admission they have nothing positive to contribute.
From a more reasoned perspective, the election demonstrated that the country is not clamouring to leave the EU, let alone crash-out. On the contrary: a majority of Britain’s MEPs will be pro-Europeans. The combined vote of the overtly Remain parties was higher than the combined vote of the Brexit parties. True the election provided only to an indication of public sentiment, but I doubt a majority of the nearly two-thirds of the population who did not vote are hard-line Brexiters. Rational politicians would normally take these facts into account. But, like Farage, Tory party members are not interested in facts or the views of people under 45. Its dwindling numbers now largely consists of retired, nostalgic, soft racists, raging against a changing world. This plays to Brexit hardliners in the leadership contest who will seek to convince 120,000 out-of-touch members that they will deliver Brexit whatever the cost. There will be no serious discussion as to the likely damage to the economy, social cohesion or the country’s security.
But however rabid the hustings, a new prime minister will not be able to impose a ‘no-deal’ Brexit on the country. Although it may appear very difficult for MPs to stop a prime minister who is prepared to crash-out of the EU, I am convinced this is what they will do. Short of a vote of no confidence – not such a gamble for Tory MPs facing deselection – Parliamentary procedures do not offer legally binding ways of blocking no deal, but a supportive Speaker and overwhelming political pressures, within Parliament and beyond, would prevent such mindless self-indulgence. However disdainful of pragmatism, facts and experts, or what they might have said on the hustings, the new Prime Minister would be faced with explaining to MPs and the country how they would govern in the months of chaos following a no deal exit. As Mrs May discovered, with high office necessarily comes enforced pragmatism. And as Philip Hammond observed to Andrew Marr, ‘Parliament has already voted very clearly to oppose a no-deal Brexit and a prime minister who ignores parliament cannot survive very long’. The likelihood of a vote of no confidence followed by a crushing election defeat in the wake of a no-deal Brexit would, I suspect, concentrate minds.
The realpolitik of the EU elections and parliamentary deadlock will force the next Prime Minister to concede a peoples vote if only for self-preservation. Despite the gung-ho claims of at least some contenders – who seem to have learnt nothing from Theresa May’s crushing mistake of setting down red lines – leaving the EU at the end of October is remote. The candidates talk blithely of negotiating a new withdrawal deal and I’m sure that the stoical EU negotiators would extent to the new prime minister the courtesy of a discussion, if only to explain why they are not going to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement. But it is far from clear who the candidates think they will be negotiating with in Brussels as the new Commission and EU Office Holders will not be in place before October. Given these realities I doubt any prime minister, however cretinous, would attempt to walk-away from the EU before at least engaging in discussions with the EU. All this suggests that one of the first acts of an incoming prime minister would be to request a further extension beyond the end of October. In order to persuade a reluctant EU to grant it, he or she, will promise that whatever the outcome of the negotiations they will then be put to the people in a confirmatory referendum. And providing Remain is on the ballot the Labour Party, now under enormous pressure from its members to end its ambivalence on Brexit and a peoples vote, would find such a move impossible to oppose.
What a sorry mess. Before the referendum a venerable corpus of world leaders paid tribute to the pragmatism and resilience of the British political system: its capacity to cope rationally and effectively with both domestic and external challenges. Now the UK’s reputation for good governance is in tatters as its leaders’ flounders under prolonged Brexit indecision and induced entropy. People deserve better. The country is now paying a heavy price – upwards of £600mn per week – for an ill thought out stratagem to quell persistent Tory party infighting over Europe. And the attempt by the zealots to bundle the country out of the EU on an entirely false prospectus is shameful and selfish. The Brexit disarray has only served to confirm that in a parliamentary democracy resort to a referendum is hopeless for deciding complex issues. It is therefore ironic, that giving voters the chance to change their minds now that they are better informed is the only practical way the country can rid itself from this omnishambles.
26th May 2019