Theresa May is selling her Brexit withdrawal agreement across the United Kingdom, even though it is fantastically unpopular among her Parliamentarian colleagues. Duelling newspapers are selling their “SHOCK POLLS,” claiming that a clear majority now supports remaining in the European Union, or that the majority of Britons do not fear leaving the E.U. in a crash deal.
I think Parliament should take the deal May has negotiated. May is arguing to Remainers that not voting for her deal risks a crash-out Brexit, an outcome they hate. She is arguing to hard Brexiteers that failing to support her deal risks Brexit. Even those sympathetic to May think that this is talking out of both sides of her mouth. In fact, she is absolutely correct. Failing to support her deal has unknowable consequences right now. The risks of not supporting her deal are too immense to contemplate in the face of two realities.
1) Brexit has shown that the U.K. has a serious constitutional crisis threatening to swallow the legitimacy of its government. It is supposed to have a sovereign Parliament, and yet it now makes decisions by national referenda. Voters imposed Brexit on a Parliament that was and remains disinclined to execute it. That is the source of some of the troubles. But failing to execute on it, turning back to the voters to sort out the endless and internal Tory party drama, or putting the question back to voters in an additional referendum — with the obvious hope of ducking out of responsibility to execute on the first one; all of these options seriously worsen the Constitutional crisis, and threaten to break faith in Britain’s democracy.
2) The shocking lack of responsibility among Tory politicians. For at least the last six months, it has been clear that May’s deal would not satisfy the hard Brexiteers. Those Brexiteers have failed to produce an alternative plan, an alternative negotiating strategy, or an alternative party leader. The same goes for those Remain Tories who prefer a clean Norway option. None of these options are likely to be agreed to in time for Britain’s scheduled exit. None of them are significantly likely to command majority support in Parliament. Therefore all of them would require withdrawing the U.K’s Article 50 notice to the E.U. The effect is to drag on what has become a national psychodrama, and put the outcome in doubt again. It reveals that beneath it all, the priority among Tory politicians is to make sure that May takes the fall for Brexit’s inevitable disappointments. This priority outranks their commitment to making a success of Brexit.
The combination of these two risk factors makes the possibility of rejecting May’s deal outright abominable. It means a government that defaults to No Brexit without responsibility, or a government that slithers toward reversing Brexit without ever taking responsibility for it.
Besides, there are virtues to this deal. It takes back control of the U.K.’s borders. It rakes back the greater sum of money that is sent to E.U. projects. It does this without a crash out. In fact, this is exactly the sort of compromise — that takes the U.K. from being three-quarters in the European project to three quarters out of it — that could have united the country that woke up so divided in the summer of 2016.
The demerits of the deal are serious. The U.K. will have to really get its ducks in a row if it wants to escape the U.K.-wide backstop and achieve some new liberal trading agreement with the E.U. And having negotiated the way it did, the U.K. will lack its best negotiating cards.
The backstop which would have Northern Ireland governed by E.U. regulations even if the rest of the U.K. abandons them obviously impeaches the Union. And it offends democracy, as it would mean Northern Irish firms would be better to turn to the government in Dublin to lobby their regulators than their own. However, the reality is that Northern Ireland is already different. The Good Friday Agreement and the demographic and social trends practically destine those six counties to leave the U.K. one day and become part of Ireland.
The current Brexit deal has the backing of Theresa May, her remaining Cabinet, and the 27 nations of the E.U. The supposed alternatives are just dreams, and none of their advocates have shown themselves willing to risk anything to advice them.