The Brexit Remainers Made

People attend the anti-Brexit “No to Boris, Yes to Europe” march in London, England, July 20, 2019. (Kevin Coombs/Reuters)
Those who opposed a withdrawal are still responsible for the form it will take.

On the advice of her prime minister, Al “Boris” Johnson, Queen Elizabeth II will temporarily suspend Parliament in a few weeks. This is called proroguing Parliament. For this, Johnson is being pilloried as a dictator by Remainers. Why? By doing this, Johnson has made it harder for parliamentarians who oppose a no-deal exit from the European Union to interrupt Johnson’s Brexit negotiation strategy, which includes the possibility of no deal. Johnson has very sharply limited the time in which parliamentarians could organize to force the government to request another extension from the EU and thus make a mockery of Johnson’s promise of leaving the European Union — deal or no deal — by October 31. Essentially, parliamentarians will face a choice: Allow Johnson to proceed with his form of brinkmanship while negotiating with Brussels, including the possibility of no deal, or make Jeremy Corbyn prime minister.

Remainers should look into the mirror, however. They have shaped this outcome as much as any hardcore Brexiteer. At every single turn, in fact, it has been Remainers who have increased the chances of the U.K.’s not only leaving, but crashing out on a series of ad hoc emergency measures, rather than a comprehensive adjustment to its relationship to Europe.

Where to begin? Well, with David Cameron, the former prime minister whose purpose in calling the referendum was to shut down Euroskepticism within his own party’s ranks, settling the bothersome Europe question for another generation. He proceeded to a simply binary-choice referendum, in or out, and though he had promised to stay on as prime minister whatever the outcome, his government did no planning whatsoever for a result in which his Remain option lost. This guaranteed that an “out” result would not be limited or defined in any way. Any Brexit, no matter how hard, could conceivably claim the mandate of the most consequential referendum in the nation’s history.

His successor, Theresa May, was also a Remainer during the campaign. She adopted the zeal of a convert to make her mandate as prime minister seem as if it came from the referendum result. She very quickly defined what she meant by “Brexit means Brexit” — an end to free movement, and an exit out of the customs union. Given that the leaders of the European Union believe that their political project is a legal order dependent on the indivisibility of its four freedoms — goods, services, capital, and people — this meant that Brexit would not mean settling on something like Norway’s arrangements, which include free movement.

There are Remainers in both the Tory and the Labour party who ran on party manifestos in their last election that adverted their “respect” for the referendum result and their determination to see it through. They voted to submit Article 50 notice, starting the ticking clock toward a no-deal exit, long before any kind of end result or negotiating strategy to get to it had been reached by the government. This Article 50 exit mechanism is the default form of Brexit — no deal.

And yet, many of those who voted to make no-deal the default option when they wanted a managed and orderly Brexit could not bring themselves to endorse Theresa May’s negotiated withdrawal agreement. They had several chances to endorse it and forestall the option they believe unthinkable. They refused.

For Labour Remainers, the result is almost perverse. These Remainers were trying to keep May trapped in her Brexit dilemma by having it both ways themselves — supporting a notional perfect Brexit, but not the negotiated deal on offer. They successfully destroyed her premiership. But by being Remain wolves in Brexiteer sheep’s clothing for so long, a larger and larger number of Remain voters decided to join a party that was willing to be wolves and growl like them. The Liberal Democrats are now revived, erecting a difficult political divide between Remainers just at the time they would have to unite to thwart Brexit or at least reshape it toward something more like the negotiated deal they rejected.

Of course the blame may go beyond Remainers within the United Kingdom. Once it became obvious that Labour would not support a May-negotiated deal, figures in Dublin and Brussels resolutely rejected any renegotiation of the backstop even though in indicative votes in Parliament, May’s deal without the Irish border backstop commanded a majority. And now everyone is about to get what they said they didn’t want.

This is not to say that Johnson & Co. haven’t played their own roles in bringing about this dramatic constitutional maneuvering and the possibility of no deal. But we should remember that even losers of a debate can make things worse for themselves. And Remainers have done precisely that.