Listen to this article
Britain’s ship of state is steaming towards the iceberg of a no-deal Brexit. After the crushing parliamentary defeat of the exit deal Theresa May spent two years negotiating, the prime minister briefly opened her door to cross-party talks on alternative departure plans. But her mind stayed closed. Her statement to MPs this week showed she intends to press on with attempts to ram her agreement — with any minor concessions she can extract from the EU on the Irish border “backstop” — through parliament. Her strategy appears to be to run down the clock as the UK’s March 29 departure date approaches, leaving MPs facing a choice between her deal, or no deal. A catastrophic crash-out is becoming ever more likely.
Parliament cannot allow this to happen. MPs have already begun wresting control of the process from the government. This is not an unconstitutional coup. It is a justifiable effort to forge consensus on Britain’s future in the absence of a working government majority. MPs should legislate against a no-deal outcome and seek to extend the Article 50 withdrawal process. They should then hold indicative votes to test support for other exit options. If none can win a majority and Mrs May’s deal remains deadlocked, this newspaper believes a further step will be needed. The issue should be returned to the British people in a second referendum.
While the Financial Times supported Remain in Britain’s 2016 plebiscite, the decision to back a possible second vote is not taken lightly. After 52 per cent of voters chose the Leave option, this newspaper supported efforts to deliver that mandate in a way that respected the closeness of the outcome and minimised the economic and political damage.
In the withdrawal negotiations, Mrs May made several strategic mis-steps. Her red lines hemmed her in. A mishandled election torpedoed her parliamentary majority. While she mulishly eschewed any attempts at cross-party engagement, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party must also bear responsibility. It insisted on its own ability to negotiate a better deal but offered no compelling alternative.
The prime minister’s EU exit deal is manifestly inferior to continued membership. The backstop or insurance policy to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland has unpalatable terms. Yet, unattractive and imperfect as it is, the deal provides for an orderly withdrawal. It is a stepping stone to a range of possible future relationships with the EU that would be negotiated during a transition period.
The most striking thing about last week’s two-to-one Commons drubbing of the deal was the opposition from Conservative Eurosceptics — above all, from Brexit Bolsheviks such as Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg who crave a pure break from the EU. The withdrawal process has been taken hostage by ideological extremists determined to reject the sole sensible version of an EU exit that is on the table.
The UK’s EU partners appear open to a potential extension of the withdrawal process. MPs should back initiatives by Labour’s Yvette Cooper and the Conservative Nick Boles that would instruct the government to table a motion to extend Article 50 to the year-end if no agreement is reached by a specified date. Parliament is rightly debating other future EU relationships. These include a permanent customs union — an idea this newspaper has backed — and the “Norway” option of remaining in the single market, or “Norway Plus”, combining both elements. Mrs May, however, still treats Brexit as a matter for the Conservative party alone, and the 48 per cent of voters who chose Remain as citizens with nowhere else to go. She is playing a game of chicken over the nation’s future.
If parliament remains unable to back Mrs May’s or any other deal, there is talk in Westminster of a general election. But a new election would change nothing. It would not give voters a direct choice on EU withdrawal or an avenue to express a clear-cut opinion.
Should parliament reach deadlock, the public should instead be asked whether they still want Brexit. They deserve a chance to weigh the realities of departing against remaining in the EU under Britain’s existing terms: outside the euro and passport-free Schengen zone, while enjoying the fruits of a single market it helped to devise. For the UK, this really is having its cake and eating it, unlike the sham vision peddled by the hardline Brexiters.
A second plebiscite carries formidable risks. It might deliver no clear outcome. It might repeat the previous result or swell the Leave majority, though at least voters would have clear sight of the alternatives to EU membership. It would also be divisive. If the previous result were reversed, ardent Leavers would consider the “establishment” had conspired to rob them of their victory. A gangrenous disillusionment with democracy could fester and spread.
Yet leaving the EU under a version of Mrs May’s agreement will be divisive in any case. Arguments about the terms of departure will persist; purist Brexiters are spinning a new narrative of vassalage. Those who backed Leave primarily as a huge protest vote are likely to find “taking back control” worsens rather than improves their lot — fostering no less a sense of resentment and betrayal. Future governments must find imaginative new approaches to helping Britain’s left-behinds, in either case.
Ultimately, parliamentary gridlock over Brexit would represent a constitutional crisis of such a magnitude as to outweigh the pitfalls of a new plebiscite. The FT has a distaste for referendums. It favours representative democracy according to Edmund Burke’s formulation that “your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion”. But if the people’s representatives cannot resolve the most momentous political issue in a generation, the people must once again have their say.