Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May shelters from the rain under an umbrella after attending a church service near to her Maidenhead constituency, west of London on December 9, 2018. Theresa May wants to go down in history as the prime minister who safely steered Britain out of Europe -- a cause she did not believe in when the Brexit referendum was held. / AFP / Daniel LEAL-OLIVAS
The outlook is bleak, for both Prime Minister Theresa May and Britain. AFP

Brexit Britain is in chaos and only a People's Vote can save it

It is seven o’clock in the morning in Britain and, as usual, I wake up to the radio. A man’s voice calmly asserts that I need not worry too much about lack of medicines after the UK formally leaves the European Union next March, because he has a plan for rationing. That man − Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary in Theresa May’s Conservative government − plans to charter aircraft and is buying enormous refrigerators to stockpile imported medical supplies, even though some vital drugs simply cannot be stockpiled in this way.

As I make my first coffee, I think grumpily that perhaps our politicians should provide a list of diseases we should all avoid post-Brexit. Cancer? Diabetes? Then another sobering report mentions that the FTSE 100 index has fallen more than 3 per cent in one day. A weakening pound has made imported goods more expensive and, across the UK, households are experiencing steadily rising food and fuel prices.

Then a political commentator speculates how long the prime minister can remain “in power” and I laugh out loud. Theresa May is “in office”, but it is difficult to claim she is in anything that can be described as “power”.

As the UK reaches a truly pivotal point with Tuesday’s Commons vote on Mrs May’s Brexit deal, she stand as the nominal head of a factionalised minority government, which lost its mandate last year when she called an unnecessary election, and has now completely lost its way. It is now propped up – grudgingly − by unreliable allies from Northern Ireland’s loyalist Democratic Unionist Party.

Mrs May, meanwhile, resembles a boxer who has taken too many punches, but who refuses to fall to the ground or quit. And the blows keep on coming. It could be another resignation of a government minister, more revelations of rebellion and plotting among her Conservative colleagues, a rebuff from a European leader, an unhelpful statement from the president of the United States, a further negative report from the Bank of England or another respected economist pointing out that Brexit will make Britain poorer than remaining in the EU.

The best Mrs May can offer is that her plan will make us all less poor than no plan at all. This is like banging your head against a brick wall because it is less painful than hitting yourself with a hammer.

There are many fantasy schemes from MPs for an alternative, including the “Norway Plus Option". But Norway essentially accepts EU rules, without having a say in how those rules are made, and no new plan pleases a majority in parliament or the country.

And now Brexit might not happen at all. The European Court of Justice will also make a final ruling on Tuesday, which is expected to confirm that UK could unilaterally revoke Article 50, the legal mechanism by which Theresa May − unwisely − announced the UK would split from the EU by March 29, 2019.

For those of us who love the idea of an outward-looking, fair-minded Britain, these are desperate times. They are made even worse by the fact that all this misery is self-inflicted. Revelations about cheating and lies within both the official and unofficial leave campaigns have delegitimised their narrow victory in 2016.

This has been compounded by almost unbelievable levels of governmental incompetence. The former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab admitted that he did not understand the closeness of the relationship between the British port of Dover and Calais, its French counterpart − despite the fact that every year some hardy people actually swim across the English Channel to France.

Other government ministers are clearly unable to comprehend the rules of international trade. Some appear baffled as to why the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is such a sensitive issue. One ex-minister suggested denying food exports to Ireland, even though the famine of the late 1840s – a natural catastrophe, exacerbated by actions of the British government, in which one million people died – remains a particularly emotive chapter in Ireland’s history.

The People’s Vote – a new referendum with the option to remain in the European Union – has always seemed to me the only real way out of this mess. But Theresa May stubbornly refuses to rethink her position on Brexit, and will present her unpopular deal to the House of Commons tomorrow, regardless. In doing so, she bears out an observation commonly attributed to Albert Einstein, that “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results”.

The right wing of Mrs May's party, including the former foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, and the Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid newspaper The Sun, have made dark intimations of street violence if a "real" Brexit doesn't happen. But an unpopular Brexit, enforced by Mrs May's divided minority government, or crashing out of the EU without any deal at all are far more likely to lead to disorder.

There are 650 parliamentary constituencies in the United Kingdom. YouGov polling shows that of 632 surveyed (the 18 in Northern Ireland were omitted) some 600 now show a majority for remain. Just 30 have majorities that would be happy with a no-deal Brexit, while only two prefer Mrs May’s plan. Almost anything could happen now, including another general election, but talented MPs in all political parties are now beginning to swing behind the People’s Vote idea.

I have to confess that, while I do love my country, I am afraid of a government so incompetent that its members can't even plot against each other properly. That the British people are not putting on yellow jackets and rioting in the streets, as we have seen in France and Belgium recently, is some consolation. But the conversation around Britain's exit from the EU has become so emotionally charged and so divorced from its real-world implications that I would not be surprised to turn my radio on one morning and hear reports of civil unrest. For the sake of the British people, it's time for Mrs May to swallow her pride and let us reconsider how – or if – Brexit should proceed.

Gavin Esler is a journalist, author and television presenter

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