Where there is no vision, the people perish, says the Book of Proverbs. As the slow-motion car crash of Brexit advances, we need a plan for stopping it.
Here goes. Brexit is a revolution which devours its children. Most of those who spawned or supped with it have already vanished (Cameron, Hague, Osborne) or are disappearing beneath the waves (May and the three Brexiteers: Fox, Davis and Johnson).
Month by month in Brussels, David Davis is undergoing the same political evisceration that Theresa May endured during the election campaign.
It has little to do with the cunning Michel Barnier or the crude Jean-Claude Juncker. It is the simple function of an impossible negotiating hand. Britain has been a member of the European Union for 45 years essentially on its own terms. We propose to trade that in for isolation and insularity, while Davis asks for the "exact same benefits” in terms of trade – and no exit bill. Most eight-year-olds have a better grasp of power dynamics.
Davis’s immediate problem is the exit bill. This is being portrayed as a row about figures. But the truth is he does not want to agree any figure. Whatever the number– £20bn or £50bn – he gets flayed by the right and the Mail, and the promise of £350m a month for the NHS on the side of the Leave bus has to be painted over. But if he doesn’t agree a figure, or a mechanism from which one can be calculated, there won’t be any trade deal.
So expect constant threats of walkouts which don’t materialise; though don’t rule out an impulsive Davis resignation on the pretext of being undermined by the prime minister when she, finally, has to agree a figure. These are the immediate rocks ahead, and beyond them are many more. The only question is how much damage Brexit does and how quickly.
However, that doesn’t mean that Brexit will be defeated; and it isn’t a vision of sunlit uplands. To defeat Brexit, two things are essential.
First, we need to secure a referendum on the ultimate May/Davis deal (or non-deal if they decide to crash out). A referendum is probably the only way to proceed, since the people have expressed their view in the past. It is vital this is not conceived as a rerun of last year’s poll, but rather a referendum on May’s deal. And it is essential that, come the referendum, there is a credible and optimistic alternative to accepting withdrawal.
The EU withdrawal bill, which started in the House of Commons last week, is the mechanism by which a referendum can be secured. When the bill reaches the House of Lords early next year, there will almost certainly be a majority of peers prepared to insert a requirement for a referendum before withdrawal takes effect.
Labour will be in favour of a referendum by then, I predict. We know from his actions hitherto that, when absolutely pressed, Jeremy Corbyn takes the weakest pro-European course on offer. He may not be pro-European (the EU is not a Latin American liberation movement), but he can’t abandon his youth army and virtually his entire party by backing Theresa May on hard Brexit. By next summer the only way to disown May without taking responsibility for anything else will be to back a referendum.
If I am right, then the crucial political event of 2018 will be the vote in the House of Commons next summer on a proposed referendum on May’s proposed withdrawal treaty. Will there be the 20 or so Tory rebels who are needed to carry it?
Here again, the least damaging option for sensible Tories will be a referendum, for this doesn’t involve voting against May’s deal, which might bring the government down and precipitate an election. If the Tory rebellion is large enough, May might even herself agree to the referendum – for the same reason that Harold Wilson agreed to one in 1975 and David Cameron in 2016: to avoid her party splitting irrevocably.
If a referendum is agreed, it would probably be held in early 2019, when May’s deal is sealed – or not – and just before we are due to leave the EU. For those opposed to Brexit, can this referendum be won, even with the government, most of the Conservative and Ukip parties, and the Tory media on the other side?
A lot depends upon whether the alternative is the status quo – or EU membership without freedom of movement in respect of right to work and right to reside for all EU nationals. If Chancellor Merkel and President Macron make an offer, probably over the heads of the British government, for the UK to stay in the economic institutions of the EU, but with national control over immigration, I believe the referendum can be won.
Why might Macron and Merkel make this offer? Partly because – in Macron’s case – he (rightly) doesn’t believe that unrestricted free movement of labour is integral to the single market. Partly because many other EU leaders agree with him. And partly for the big strategic reason – which weighs on strategic thinkers in Berlin – that, if Britain leaves the EU, 80% of Nato resources will then be outside the EU, which is hardly a recipe for European security and stability if you are looking across at the Russian and Chinese bears.
The interplay between a referendum and such a Merkel-Macron offer will be vital. If it is clear by next summer that Britain is going to hold a referendum, then the incentive for them to make a bold offer greatly increases.
To win the referendum, vision and optimism are vital. We need – for the first time in modern British politics – to sing in praise of a European Union which has achieved a peace, prosperity and freedom which our ancestors only dreamed of; and bold confidence that we can continue to enjoy these advantages with continued British engagement in Europe.
Maybe all our former prime ministers, alongside President Macron, will say all this at an Anglo-French commemoration – in, say, Coventry Cathedral – to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War next autumn?
Where Britain has led positively in Europe in the past, look at the results. Attlee on Nato. Thatcher on the single market. Churchill on … well, the whole of European civilisation. And what a civilisation. The greatest force for enlightenment, human progress and human rights the world has ever known. But when it has gone wrong, a cauldron of war, slavery and holocaust. And all in the recent past.
There is real hope that a stolen future can be repossessed. With a plan, starting now.