This week, appropriately beginning 1st April, Brexit descended into farce after merely being a two-year comedy of errors. In fact it went beyond farce and became more like one of those Shakespearian tragedies like King Lear where doomed tragic heroes begin behaving like clowns and demented court jesters. The doomed tragic hero in this case is the United Kingdom itself and its venerable (some would say senile) parliamentary system.
Brexit had two toxic characteristics built into it. The people voted to leave the EU by a clear majority, but they elected a parliament that was 75% in favour of Remain. This is because of the class bias of the Brexit vote (the Remain chattering classes versus the Brexit deplorables.) This required a superhuman abnegation on the part of MPs to implement the will of the people when they thought the people had gone mad. Some MPs were capable of this spirit of intellectual self-sacrifice for democracy’s sake. Most were not and fought tooth and nail to stop Brexit or water it down to the point of it losing all purpose. They kept up a dishonest mantra that what was voted for was not deliverable. It was only not deliverable because of them.
The second toxic element was EU manoeuvring. The EU bosses had two goals: stop the UK leaving, or, if they couldn’t, make leaving such a disaster for the UK it would deter anyone else. (Their political goals of power and unity trumped the economic interests of their citizens.) They took advantage of the fact that after May’s reckless snap election she was dependent on the Northern Irish DUP for a majority, and needed every single Conservative MP on side.
May went for the full Brexit: outside the customs union and the single market, which meant she was relying totally on Conservative and DUP votes to get her deal through. The EU then slipped into the Withdrawal Agreement a poison pill: the Irish Backstop, a temporary membership of the Customs Union until a free trade deal was negotiated, so as to prevent a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. This arrangement could only be ended by mutual agreement — that is, with EU permission. What is more it required alignment of Northern Ireland with single market rules. This poison pill could not be swallowed by the DUP, because it divided NI from GB, or by the hardline Brexiteers because it could be used by the EU to keep the UK in the Customs Union forever.
Theresa May should have pounded the table to demand a time limit on the Backstop or a UK right to leave it unilaterally, or else she would walk away. A dragon in the Commons but a mouse in Brussels, she funked it. The EU were adamant the Backstop must be unlimited in time, and then insisted that the whole deal was now signed and couldn’t be re-opened. (At most they would give a few toothless verbal reassurances that were not part of it.) This intransigence guaranteed that the Withdrawal Agreement would never pass through parliament. The votes against it by the DUP and hardline Brexiteers, when added to the Remainer and partisan votes of the Labour Party (which falsely labelled the deal a “Tory Brexit”) ensured crushing defeats every time May presented it.
The only logical solution would have been to threaten the Labour Party with a no deal Brexit to make them come on board, since the Withdrawal Agreement itself had nothing in it that the Labour Party could not support. It did not go into the details of the future trade relationship of the UK and EU to be negotiated afterwards (i.e. it did not exclude a customs union or single market) and the Political Declaration which sketched this future out could easily have been fudged to keep everyone happy. Instead, May has now decided to compromise with Labour and explicitly accept staying in the Customs Union in order to get their support. Her own hardline Brexiteers are now in open revolt. The dance is becoming frantic as the deadline approaches of 12th April, the new date at which the UK must exit or else ask the EU for a long extension of article 50.
It remains to be seen at this moment whether the compromise over a Customs Union (which makes it impossible for the UK to make its own trade deals, one of the key goals of Brexit) goes ahead. Since it can only be written into the non-binding Political Declaration (as an intention), not the legally binding Withdrawal Agreement, it is hard to see Labour having any faith in the promises of a PM already on the way out.
Most important will be the attitude of the EU when May asks for an extension next week. Will they grant a long extension in the hope that Brexit fires will burn out and a second referendum will cancel it? (Resigning themselves to more of Farage’s harangues in the EU parliament, cheered on by hordes of French and Italian populists.) Or will they call time and force the UK to choose between renouncing Brexit and leaving at once with no deal? (In other words, surrender or suffer — the endgame of the more Machiavellian plotters among them, but perhaps now also of the merely exasperated and despairing.)
If the EU chooses the second course, this may be a salutary kick in the pants for the most selfish, blinkered, factious political elite on the planet. It is always enlightening to learn how unloved and dispensable one is. If it happens, the ultimate revelation will be whether the UK parliament will still have enough tattered rags of pride left to walk away, or whether they will cringe and crawl one more time (this time forever) to the cracking of the whip of their masters in Brussels. This really will determine what sort of nation Britain is and will be.