In the light of recent developments it seems worth making a few non-partisan points about the state we’re in.
I say non-partisan. I’m unashamedly against Brexit, but this piece isn’t an argument for or against. Rather it’s an attempt to make sense of a changed reality.
We now have an ironic situation where a vote for a hard Brexiteer, whether for Farage in a general election or more urgently in the Tory leadership stakes, will almost certainly ensure that Brexit never happens.
Just consider this.
The Tory Party’s current difficulties reflect a fundamental truth about its core support: that core has always consisted of an uneasy alliance between reactionary older people and a chunk of the business community. Unfortunately for the Tories these two constituencies have opposing views on Brexit, hence the fatal and probably unresolvable split in the party.
It seems likely that Boris Johnson will be the next prime minister. Whether this happens or not, the fact this decision lies in the hands of the Blue Rinse Brigade means it is a racing certainty that the next prime minister will be a hard Brexiteer, or at least will have claimed to be so, ready to lead the country out of the EU on WTO terms (when the EU calls his or her bluff, as they certainly will).
If this is the case then it is equally likely that the government will lose its working majority. Even with continuing DUP support it would only take five moderate Tory MPs to overturn that majority, and there are many more than that who would be appalled at the prospect of a WTO exit. (It’s probably worth pointing out that even the DUP would not welcome the return to a hard border in Ireland, which is what would have to happen without a deal.)
(I’m assuming too that between parliament and the EU they will find a way of ensuring that the UK cannot crash out of the EU by default before parliament enters a new session.)
We then have the real prospect of a general election. If at that stage the Tory party really has become the unequivocal champion of a no deal exit Farage will be looking pointless (he’ll probably claim he’s done his job). But this won’t help it, because it will lose the support of its business constituency. The latter are most likely to move to the LibDems, who will probably have new momentum from the EU elections and if they have any nous at all will be cultivating their progressive business credentials. (ChangeUK, if it’s going to survive, will also be making its primary pitch to the moderate Tory/business constituency, though depending again on the EU results they too may just fall out of the picture.)
It will be an interesting election, and predictions at this stage are clearly fraught with uncertainty. It seems likely however that once again no party would hold an overall majority (a clear majority is always going to be hard for Labour without a resurgence in Scotland). However such a parliament would have a very different complexion, with the LibDems taking significant seats from the newly hard-right Tories, with Labour probably benefitting too from the fragmentation of the conservative vote. Labour would probably be the largest party, but would need to work with the LibDems and SNP. To do this it would have to have come off the fence about Brexit in favour at least of a second referendum, a move which again pending the EU election results already seems likely.
This new remain-leaning government might well decide that enough was enough, and that we simply need to revoke EU withdrawal and get on with our lives. Depending on general election manifestos they might feel they need to test this decision through a further referendum, or they might be able to claim that the general election itself had legitimised the move. Brexiteers would be furious, but you know, will of the people and all that.
Underpinning all of this is another fundamental truth. We have reached a point with Theresa May’s resignation where reality has asserted itself. There can’t be a fudge. Brexit does not mean Brexit. Brexit means a hard Brexit. All the lies of the referendum campaign about leaving the EU without significant cost have been demolished. Those true believers still carrying the anti-EU flag mostly say they are willing to endure hardship for the sake of the greater prize of “independence”. That’s fair enough, because there would certainly be hardship, and I’m pretty sure that faced with such a choice in a more honest in/out debate most people (by a significant majority) would choose to remain.
This fundamental truth may well be obscured for a while by the likely success of Farage in the EU elections, but it won’t go away, and a general election would be a very different beast, as Farage has always found.
There’s still going to be a lot of smoke along the way, but with the end of May’s government we can begin to believe that we’ve seen the end of Brexit. It’s certainly the end of the pretence by the likes of Philip Hammond that you could craft a soft Brexit that somehow minimised the economic cost while “respecting” the referendum. It did nothing of the sort and I’m glad the true believers have vehemently opposed it.
But in doing this the Brexiteers themselves have had to change their position, to accept that the notion of an easy deal was a fantasy, a serious misunderstanding about the way the world is. Pathetically the likes of Johnson are still trying to claim that if only we’d been firmer in negotiation we’d have got what we wanted. That fantasy will also shortly be demolished, hence the clear choice between WTO and revocation. The true believers will hold the faith, but their position was certainly not tested in the referendum and so has no democratic legitimacy. As I’ve said, the upshot is almost certainly the end of Brexit.
I hope this doesn’t sound triumphalist. Even if all this comes to pass it’s going to be hard not to feel the whole episode has been a vast waste of time and money, the last thrash of a deluded national self-image.
There would at least be some comfort in the fact that our democracy however broken (and it certainly needs attention) had withstood an assault by a malign cynicism with its own distinctly niche agenda (fingers crossed then for the US under similar assault). Only then, when we get past the lies and delusions can we begin to address the serious divisions and problems both here, and in the rest of Europe.