French President Macron is right. Any extension of the Article 50 process should be for a reason. It should be to eliminate the blind Brexit [prime minister] Theresa May proposes. But first her deal must be defeated.
The Brexiters will fall into line with her deal because they believe they can win the subsequent battle and impose a hard Brexit. The soft Brexit supporters and those who want a fresh referendum should unite to insist Britain knows the direction of its future relationship with Europe before we leave. We have learnt a lot during this Brexit debacle. It has been a masterclass in political risk. We are now in a state of confusion, in which even those whose day job is to study the details find it hard to explain.
The May deal is bad for one central reason. In the name of resolving the issue so we can move on, it does no such thing. The political declaration is deliberately vague. It is unclear if the framework for the future is hard Brexit, that is, a Canada-style conventional free-trade agreement, or soft Brexit, that is, a Norway-style arrangement that keeps us in the European trading system of the single market and/or the customs union.
The difference between the two is fundamental and at the heart of the whole Brexit debate. And they are — with some plus or minus — the only models on offer. The reason for the vagueness of the declaration is that when the PM tried to decide this issue, at Chequers, in favour of soft, it was clear enough for cabinet ministers to resign but insufficiently clear for Europe to accept. So she retreated.
Today, the cabinet is split. One half want soft, the other hard. May’s strategy is to maintain ambiguity and essentially say to both sides: keep your powder dry and fight it out after we leave. When she says that an extension of the Article 50 process doesn’t of itself resolve the central question, she is right. But neither does her deal. Instead, we are going to pay billions upfront, exit, lose our negotiating leverage and the fight will go on.
We are told that this is the only deal on offer, when this is nonsense. Europe would be perfectly happy to amend the future declaration to point in the direction of hard or soft Brexit, should parliament decide it. Then, having decided the guiding principle, the detail would indeed be much easier.
This was, after all, what we were promised continually by the PM until she realised she couldn’t do it without destroying what was left of the unity of the Conservative party. The obvious thing is to vote down her deal, vote down no deal, extend the time limit and reach an “in principle” conclusion on hard or soft; if neither passes, go back to the people. Alternatively, accept her deal but with the Kyle-Wilson amendment for a confirmatory referendum before we implement it.
The parameters of hard or soft are well known and a decision on the options could be done even within the timeframe of a short extension. This course is being refused because the PM knows that she would be forced to take a position — the cabinet will split and the Brexiters will wreak further havoc should parliament vote for soft Brexit.
It is extraordinary to see how the once strutting Brexiters are so frit of putting their actual hard Brexit proposal to the vote either of parliament or the people before we leave. They fear, rightly, that when the implications of Britain moving to a Canada-style trade relationship with Europe are explicit, the country will recoil. Ultimately, the Brexiters’ strategy will be to get Britain out, remove May, elect a Brexiter to deliver a hard Brexit or possibly fight an election against a weakened Labour party to secure such a mandate. Those who want a soft Brexit, including Labour MPs who may be thinking of backing the deal, would be ill advised, unwittingly, to cooperate with this strategy.
For those of us who want to put the matter back to the people, the route to such a decision is through the process of forcing a conclusion to the hard v soft question. Once obliged to choose, MPs will realise either choice is unattractive and the people will understand neither is better than what we have inside Europe now. MPs should think long before agreeing to exit blind. If I were an MP, I would not want to own this putrid potage of poor political leadership and self-destructive consequence.
Any extension requires Europe’s agreement. It should agree, but with a condition. The extension should be for a purpose: clarity as to the future framework. That way, the next stage of negotiation will not be a repeat of the last. This is in Europe’s interests. And for sure it is essential to ours.
The author is former prime minister of Britain — Guardian News & Media Ltd