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A Debate about Brexit in Which Nobody Debated Brexit

From left: Boris Johnson, Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove, Sajid Javid, and Rory Stewart appear on BBC TV’s debate in London, England, June 18, 2019. (Jeff Overs/BBC/Handout via Reuters)

I was looking forward to the BBC’s “Our Next Prime Minister” debate, but I finished the show seriously questioning my sanity. It was an hour I’ll never get back, so I might as well fill you in.

First, the format was horrible. It just resulted in all five men talking over one another; a collection of soundbites made entertaining by the hilarious expression on each of the candidate’s faces.

Second, nobody explained how they were going to get Brexit through Parliament. Boris Johnson bumbled about wanting to leave with or without a deal but not wanting to leave without deal, and then stopped talking when he realized he his campaign mission was to keep quiet. Saajid Javid helped him out by confidently asserting the necessity of a negotiation deadline. It gave the opportunity for Boris to nod (Boris did a lot of nodding throughout).

Javid then talked about a magic technology that could solve the Irish border issue, hence allowing him to pass a deal through Parliament. This makes him essentially the same candidate as Rory Stewart, except Stewart doesn’t invent nonexistent technology. For the record, Javid was actually excellent in this debate. He was the only conciliatory one on the stage and was strong on multiple other questions. But he isn’t a magician — and that means he doesn’t have an answer to Brexit. As for Stewart, everyone decided to have a pop at him, which meant he couldn’t pin Boris down on any of his ramblings. Stewart wants to stick with Theresa May’s deal, and that’s not a popular position. It is, however, they only feasible position for a person committed to honor the Brexit vote — because parliament would sooner accept a compromised Brexit than a Brexit without a deal.

Alas, that point never got made, because Michael Gove and Jeremy Hunt also took aim at Stewart. They had a go at him for wanting to bring Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement before Parliament — which, by the way, they brought to the House of Commons three times themselves. Apparently, both can get a different deal from the EU by walking over and asking, because they’ve managed to overcome all sorts of difficult obstacles in their lives. In reality, the EU doesn’t care about their biographies. It will not renegotiate, and pretending it will will only delay the entire process further.

Many people are asking how the withdrawal agreement would ever pass through Parliament. It is a fair question with no easy answers, but it is the only one we should be asking. Even if Johnson were at the helm, we would be heading towards a situation where Parliament will have to either pass no deal, call a general election, or revoke Article 50 and put an end to Brexit entirely. At this stage, anybody who wants Brexit done will need to bring a deal to the table. And as votes in the House of Commons have time and again proved, a compromise is the only deal with anything near a majority. Given a choice between no deal and revoke, the commons would revoke. Given a choice between a deal and revoke, there is some hope for a deal.

The idea that the U.K. should leave no deal on the table in order to get something out of the EU is, I think, incorrect. Every candidate has already admitted that no deal would be a disaster. An active speaker of the house and the arithmetic in Parliament means that the government could not pass no deal even if it wanted to. Retaining no deal as an option is not the equivalent to bluffing in poker game — it is showing your opponent a dreadful hand and then attempting to bluff while sitting opposite and trying to contain your laughter. Those who think they are making an obvious point when they say “keep no deal on the table so that we can get a better deal” are, in fact, calling for a general election. It is no surprise that Johnson frequently looked on the verge of giggles. If I were him, I would be stunned that everybody was still buying my sweet nothings.

There is a slim, slim chance that I could be wrong and the EU decides to budge. If it does, I stand corrected. If it doesn’t, we are simply wasting time.

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