Which way to the exit?

David Runciman writes about the Brexit puzzle

Brexit has arrived at its witching hour. Seemingly plausible schemes are being conjured out of thin air and every meaningful question has many possible answers, and therefore possibly none. It is hard to think of anything to say which is not being said somewhere else by people you’d prefer not to associate with. Still, here is a question I have not seen posed elsewhere: why did not one Tory MP abstain from the vote of confidence in Theresa May? The whole process felt a little uncanny. The poll was triggered in secret one night and fully concluded by the next. Turnout was a Stalinist 100 per cent – a figure only achieved by allowing two MPs who had lost the whip over allegations of sexual misconduct back into the fold for this occasion – and there were no spoilt ballots. Every single eligible voter expressed a view one way or the other: 200 for, 117 against. Was there really no one who felt truly conflicted, unable to convey confidence in the prime minister but unwilling for her to be replaced by someone even worse? When Jeremy Corbyn faced – and overwhelmingly lost – a confidence vote in 2016, 13 Labour MPs declined to take part, along with four who spoiled their ballots. Are all Tories so much clearer in their minds than that?

Of course not. The reason no one abstained is that this was a secret ballot and refusing to participate is a public act. The whips could not know how anyone voted – not even whether all government ministers followed their constitutional duty either to support the prime minister or to resign – but they would know the names of all those who failed to collect their ballot slips. If you have to vote, you might as well pick a side. As a result, the starkly divided outcome was perfectly calibrated to resolve nothing and to entrench mistrust. Enough MPs voted for May – including those who wish her gone – to keep her safe for now. Enough voted against – including those who dread the alternatives – to ensure she could not move forward with her deal. In Brussels the effect seems to have been to harden the resolve of European leaders not to budge, for fear of being beholden to intransigent, organised opposition inside the parliamentary Conservative Party. Yet appearances can be deceptive – there was nothing organised about this opposition. It was a contrivance of the occasion itself.

Here in microcosm is the essence of the Brexit puzzle and the reason it is proving such a nightmare to resolve: are we stuck because we are so divided or are we so divided because we are stuck? The various political mechanisms we have for getting out of this impasse seem inadequate to the task of bridging so many fundamental differences of opinion, yet those differences are being exacerbated by the mechanisms at work. It should in theory be possible to secure parliamentary approval for the sort of compromise deal that May has been working to achieve, given that hardline Brexiteers ought to prefer it to the prospect of not leaving the EU at all, and Remainers should prefer it to the prospect of leaving with no deal. Yet both sides seem united only by their loathing of the sort of compromise May’s deal represents. It is far from clear that committed Brexiteers do prefer it to not leaving at all. They have invested too much in this struggle to be content with any outcome that gives them a half-baked version of their heart’s desire. A compromised Brexit – especially if the biggest compromise is on the question of national sovereignty – does more to devalue the price they have paid to get here than an outright rebuff: better that the struggle should continue fruitlessly than having to live with the thought that we did all that just to get this. Better still to let the clock wind down to 29 March in the hope that no agreement in Parliament means that no deal can be struck.

Theresa May

Meanwhile, for Remainers, secure in the knowledge that there is no parliamentary majority for a no-deal exit, the temptation is always there to push for a second referendum in the hope of overturning the original result. Why settle for this when that might be just around the corner? While the three options of May’s deal, no deal and a second referendum are all on the table, there is little prospect of making progress. For that to happen, one of the three options would need to fall away, forcing at least one side to choose between compromise and intransigence. But that is the reason it is proving so hard to whittle three down to two, because it would force at least one side to compromise. We are divided because we are stuck as much as we are stuck because we are divided.

For the Labour Party, the situation is further complicated by the fact that it is committed to a fourth option, which is to bring down the government and force a general election. Corbyn has been much criticised for using process as a fig-leaf to cover his own reluctance to reveal his hand. It is widely assumed that he is stalling on a vote of confidence in the government because, were that to be defeated, he would be required to take a position in favour of a second referendum, something that as a convinced Brexiteer he is deeply reluctant to do. But this is the sequence that was mandated at Labour Party Conference, where it was agreed that the strategy should be to push for a second referendum only if it was clear that the government could not be collapsed through a vote in Parliament. So it is not really a position on Europe, or even on a united Ireland, that lies at the heart of the Corbyn project, but rather a commitment to allowing party conference – and therefore party members – to set the course of policy. Process is something on which the current leadership is not willing to compromise.

The way the forces are now lined up, each of them dug in behind their respective red lines, gives the strong impression that our politics is currently organised around commitments that no one can deliver. Is that the way this whole episode will appear to future historians, as a case of grotesque political overreach? Does Brexit represent the limit of what is politically possible? Perhaps. Even so, it still matters whether we think the limit was set by the end itself – leaving the EU – or by the means we have employed for achieving it. If it is simply not possible for a nation to leave an international organisation with which its laws and economy have become intertwined over more than forty years then that is a lesson for all major democracies in the 21st century: you are not as sovereign as you might like to think. Certainly, that is the lesson many European leaders would like their electorates to take from the Brexit fiasco. But if this is a story of unfortunate accidents rather than inevitable disappointment then the moral might be different: not don’t do Brexit, but don’t do politics the British way. The UK political system – parliamentary sovereignty, a strong executive, first-past-the-post, no codified constitution, and therefore a referendum on a whim – is designed to facilitate decision-making. If we can’t arrive at a decision, maybe there is something wrong with the whole set-up. Political realists say that to will the end is to will the means. We lack the means to will the means.

As a case of political overreach Brexit is fundamentally different from the other notorious modern instance of Britain’s political elite biting off more than they could chew: Suez. Then it became rapidly clear that a small group of politicians, acting in secret, had dangerous illusions about the scope of their power. They thought they could get others – above all, the Americans – to do their bidding. They were wrong. With Brexit, it is true that many politicians – above all, Boris Johnson – appear to harbour Suez-like illusions about how easy it should be to get others to do our bidding. But the difference is that Brexit is not a policy concocted in secret by an out-of-touch political elite. It was the choice of the people in a referendum. If we conclude it cannot be done, we are also drawing a conclusion about the political overreach of the voting public when offered a direct say in the future of the country. That is potentially a much more uncomfortable place to be.

There is enough that is contingent about the present situation to suggest it was not bound to end up like this. Much of the mess is a consequence of major political change being attempted by a minority government, beholden to small factions on which it has to depend but which it cannot control. The centrality of Northern Ireland to the whole process was underplayed in the original vote. But it has surely been exaggerated by the fact that the government found itself reliant on DUP support to remain in office at all. Had May held the parliamentary majority she hoped the 2017 general election was going to deliver – say, fifty or more – she would not be where she now is. Yet that, too, is not a straightforward way of saying that this is some terrible accident. It was the same voting public that produced the current configurations in Parliament that produced May’s original task of finding a Brexit deal that could pass Parliament. May went to the country on the prospectus that a big majority would strengthen her hand in negotiating the best Brexit deal. Maybe people didn’t believe her. Maybe they didn’t care. Either way, they didn’t give her what she asked for. They gave her this.

Whatever happens, the fundamental question to be resolved is whether those disappointed by the outcome decide it was reached because some original promise was betrayed or because we have arrived at the limits of the possible. If Brexit goes to a second referendum, and that vote overturns the result of the first, it could be argued that the people changed their minds in the face of the evidence of what their original decision would result in. But anyone convinced of the virtues of the first vote will likely remain convinced that we only arrived at a second one because of deliberate sabotage of the original decision. The great danger of a second referendum is that it creates the illusion that the system either corrected itself or betrayed itself, when it would be closer to the truth to accept that the system simply revealed itself as inadequate to the task at hand. The referendum result, whatever the merits of the case, has exposed the limits of our institutional arrangements. It is not that parliamentary government has failed. Or that plebiscitary democracy has failed. But this way of trying to combine parliamentary government with plebiscitary democracy has failed.

In this context, the great advantage of May’s much hated deal is just how hated it is. The fact that no one likes it means that if it passes Parliament, no one can be in any doubt that we have reached the limits of the possible under the current system. The greatest danger comes if the Brexit outcome fuels the view that one group manipulated the democracy we have to thwart the will of another group, who can therefore neither forgive nor forget. Better to recognise that we have exhausted the options than to believe that there is a version of our present politics that allows our preferred option to prevail. Better, in other words, a miserable compromise and then to get on with reforming the democracy we have, so that the next compromise is a better one.

21 December 2018