FILE PHOTO: Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May attends a press conference with Secretary General of NATO Jens Stoltenberg at 10 Downing Street, in London, Britain, June 21, 2018. To match Special Report BRITAIN-EU/MAY REUTERS/Henry Nicholls/File Photo Image Credit: REUTERS

It was there in black and white, one of the most important promises ever made by the political class to the British public: A sacred, unbreakable contract between government and voters. “The referendum ... is your chance to decide if we should remain in or leave the European Union,” the government had told Britons solemnly in its 23-page, taxpayer-financed propaganda brochure, making its final case. “This is your decision. The government will implement what you decide.”

The message was crystal clear: This was a historic constitutional moment, a renewal of the social compact underpinning Britain’s institutions, a choice of such significance that it had to be taken directly by the electorate. Forty-two years after Britain joined the Common Market, and 55 years after Harold Macmillan’s controversial first application, it was decision time, a plebiscite to end all the dithering. No wonder the vote gripped the nation like no other in living memory.

Equally indisputable, according to both Remain and Leave campaigns, was that withdrawing would entail a rupture, a revolutionary break from the status quo. By the end of the campaign, it was clear that Britain was not talking a few tweaks, or a minor renegotiation of its membership. Positions had evolved and hardened.

Fast forward two-and-a-bit years, and the anticlimax is extraordinary. Many Leave voters feel that they were duped, that the referendum was little more than a charade, that Britain’s long and proud democratic journey has come to an end. When the Government pledged to follow instructions, what it really meant was that it would deliver on a Remain vote, seeing it as carte blanche for more integration. A Leave vote, on the other hand, was so clearly preposterous and self-defeating that it could never be enacted. The “realists” called Brexit a mirage, impossible because it was incompatible with the existing technocratic legal order — never realising how inflammatory such statements sounded.

Now, many Leave voters are beginning to fear that this promise to implement the referendum was a monumental lie, one of the worst cases of deceit from the political class in modern British history. It was only made on the expectation that it would never be delivered; and we know no preparations were made for a Leave vote, putting Britons on the back foot from day one. Even more grievously, the establishment — most members of parliament, the Confederation of British Industry, most civil servants, the cultural elites, many academics and so on — won’t accept the result. They are refighting the referendum using every tool they have, without a vocal and articulate Leave campaign to oppose them.

For a little while after the referendum, these pro-Remain refuseniks were in abeyance, and with the right government, the right attitude and the right cadre of advisers they could have been contained (or even co-opted). The technocratic status quo could have been crushed, and a genuine and workable Brexit forged, by leveraging this country’s huge assets and economic strength.

But the original Brexiteers imploded within hours of the result, and the Government that did emerge from the madness turned out to exhibit Suez Crisis levels of incompetence. Prime Minister Theresa May adopted a divided governmental structure that simply wasted time and handed power to the civil service.

The staggering intellectual and leadership vacuum since 2016 — and last year’s amateurish general election — allowed the civil service to seize complete control, and pro-Remain MPs to threaten to overturn any meaningful Brexit. There has been no real no-deal planning, as such an outcome was anathema to those in charge.

The Chequers plan, which is bound to be adulterated further by European negotiators, looks like it will make it impossible for the UK to enjoy the upsides of leaving, while retaining most of the downsides of membership. True, there is more than one way to leave, and multiple palatable compromises; May’s now-defunct red lines were too rigid. But some compromises are so great that what is left is no longer a true Brexit. It is now nearly certain that whatever deal she “negotiates” will fall into this tragic category.

The situation is thus exceptionally grave. For Leave voters and at least some Remainers, this is another Iraq “weapons of mass destruction” moment: A shattering, toxic realisation that their assumptions about their rulers were misplaced. Former prime minister Tony Blair never recovered from going to war on a false prospectus. Trust is central to politics, and its breakdown helps to explain much of the angst and rage of recent years. The financial crisis was a lie of sorts: it broke an implicit promise by the elites that they knew what they were doing. The parliamentary expenses scandal was another.

There is a better way. The Government must stop the current, doomed Brexit process, scrap the White Paper and start again from scratch — this time negotiating properly and threatening the EU with severe consequences if it doesn’t cooperate, just as Brussels has been doing with Britain. The December agreement must be torn up: The UK cannot accept the EU’s interpretation of the Irish question or the ridiculous backstop. Britain will need not just a new hardball negotiating approach, but an entirely new, pro-growth strategy to help the economy and companies get through the turbulence. This may mean halting Article 50, or finding another temporary solution to buy time.

If none of this happens, if Brexit is killed off, de jure or de facto, Britain will be plunged into a permanent political crisis. The Tory grass roots and the party’s pro-Brexit base will never forgive the leadership’s betrayal, and Labour will lose its working-class support. A Ukip 2.0 will arise, as well as European-style populist and nationalist parties. Swathes of the country — perhaps, after the next recession, a majority — will cry out for a Donald Trump figure.

Is that really what May wants her legacy to be? Time has almost run out, but she can still — just — pull back from the brink.

— The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2018

Allister Heath is a British journalist and commentator. He is the editor of the Sunday Telegraph.