Brexit Britain has painted itself into a corner, but there are escape routes
Voters are able to respect the result of a vote held three years ago, while also recognising that things have changed since then
There is only one question in British politics right now: “What is going to happen with Brexit?” And there is only one honest answer to it: “We don’t know.” Nobody has a clue. Anyone who pretends otherwise is a fool – or thinks you are. Here, the words of the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu seem apt: ““Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know.”
But we do know a few things. First, that parliament has voted by 412 votes to 201 to request an extension of article 50. If the EU agrees to this at its March 22-23 summit, that will mean that Brexit will not happen until at least July. Last autumn I spent time in Brussels with MEPs and EU officials, and they asked what Britain would need more time for. As one put it, “It can’t be for more messing about.”
The simple truth is that “messing about” appears to be what Theresa May’s Conservative government is good at. There is a veneer of consistency in Mrs May’s sloganeering, but underneath that, it is vacuous. She says that “Brexit means Brexit”, that she is pursuing “the will of the people” and that voting with her is “patriotic”. The failure of MPs to support her deal, she wrote in the Sunday Telegraph last week, will mean that the UK "will not leave the EU for many months, if ever".
But, for all her dedication to “delivering Brexit”, the British prime minister has been exposed as a poor manager, a charmless campaigner, and a leader who has taken a very difficult issue and, through her own incompetence, made it seem impossible.
Since leadership requires followers, and Mrs May has an ever-diminishing band of them, even within her own government, she can barely be classed as a leader at all.
There are escape routes from this checkmate, though.
This week, two Labour MPs, Peter Kyle and Phil Wilson, will put before parliament an ingenious plan. They want MPs to support Mrs May’s withdrawal agreement – which has been rejected overwhelmingly twice – but only if she agrees that the public will get to vote on it in another referendum.
The Kyle-Wilson plan recognises that Mrs May’s deal, for all its flaws, is probably the best that can be achieved in negotiations with the European Union. It is certainly better than crashing out with no deal, and unlike some of the other alternative plans, it does offer a kind of “Brexit”, insofar there is an option to leave the EU and its rules.
In 2016, UK voters narrowly endorsed Brexit without knowing much of its practical realities
Back in June 2016, British voters narrowly endorsed the principle of Brexit but without knowing much, or indeed anything, of the practical realities of what that would mean. Now we have seen some of those realities.
So, will the Kyle-Wilson plan pass through parliament? Again, no one knows. The strongest opposition to it will come from the right wing of Mrs May’s Conservative party, who claim that a second referendum could be divisive and that thinking and voting again does not “respect” the result of the original referendum of 2016.
It’s a bizarre argument. People are perfectly capable of respecting a vote held three years ago, while also recognising that we live in 2019 and things have changed since then.
The greatest respect democrats can pay to democracy is to have another vote. A second referendum will stir up passions, but it cannot divide us more than accepting that Mrs May’s shambolic minority government can impose its idea of a Brexit, which no one voted for and no one really likes.
Behind all of this, there is a more optimistic story. A new generation of young people have been politicised by Brexit. They are engaged and committed. Meanwhile, many of the current generation of British politicians have been exposed as inadequate, lazy and, in some cases, barely on speaking terms with the truth.
Since the Brexit vote, I have travelled across England, Scotland and Wales and next week will visit Northern Ireland. Everywhere, voters – particularly younger ones – are wondering how so many inept, time-serving politicians have ended up in our parliament, debating the future of our country.
There is an appetite for an inquiry into what has gone wrong in our democracy and, specifically, into allegations of cheating behind the 2016 vote.
If Mrs May’s Brexit goes ahead, every lost job, factory closure or disruption of the lives of British people will be blamed on those politicians who promised a Brexit paradise they had no hope of making a reality. They are unlikely ever to be forgiven.
If Brexit does not go ahead, then those – like me – who consider it to be a catastrophic mistake, will have a lot of work to do. We will then have to work to reform the European Union, which has many significant flaws.
More pressingly, we will have to explain to the 17.4 million good people who voted for Brexit in 2016 why leaving the EU was the wrong answer to the right questions.
Britain is a rich country, in which far too few people have a stake in society; too many are falling behind and feel left out by our political and economic system. Brexit or no Brexit, we have to change. One of the first steps will be to change our prime minister.
Gavin Esler is a journalist, author and television presenter
Updated: March 18, 2019 02:17 PM