“Decent people, hopeful of a better country, conned by a bunch of chancers, tricksters, charlatans and cowards.”
Whatever the outcome of a police investigation into Vote Leave — which was formally accused by the Electoral Commission of dodging EU referendum spending limits by channelling cash to a campaign run by a 23-year-old fashion student — it’s hard to disagree with that particular cry of anguish from the former Tory minister (and ardent remainer) Ben Gummer.
It’s not just about the money. Michael Gove, who sat on Vote Leave’s campaign committee, has now suggested that maybe whipping up fears about imaginary Turkish immigrants flooding Britain was a bad idea after all; or to be precise, that things would have had a “slightly different” feel if it was up to him. Watch the liberal leavers — those for whom it really wasn’t about immigration and who were potentially most open to pragmatic compromises — sidle away from the sinking ship. Just a shame the rest of us are trapped in the hold, with the water rising. For railing against what happened two years ago doesn’t change the reality now.
The Chequers deal for a soft Brexit agreed less than a fortnight ago may not quite be dead but it’s suffering life-threatening injuries. Monday’s drama in the Commons saw rebel Brexiters systematically targeting the Irish backstop (the agreement that if a workable solution to the Irish border problem isn’t found, we basically stay in the customs union until it is) having evidently realised just how much hinges on it. The backstop is the guarantee the EU wanted in return for us leaving in March with a daunting amount still to resolve, but two years’ transition period in which to resolve it. No backstop suggests no transition. No transition means jumping off a cliff.
That prospect in turn sharpens resolve among Tory remainers, who will seek revenge today by voting for Britain to stay in the customs union unless some other way of guaranteeing frictionless trade emerges. But if they don’t prevail, then we could move alarmingly fast from the three choices on offer last week — no deal, no Brexit, or soft Brexit — to a menu of no deal, no Brexit, or beg for more time and hope something turns up.
Those convinced a people’s vote is the answer need to acknowledge that it’s taken two years even to begin understanding what happened beneath the bonnet of the last referendum; not just the alleged fiddling of spending limits but Russian attempts to influence it, the gaming of Facebook, a whole new level of casualness with the facts.
It is perfectly possible, of course, that none of these things changed the result and that both sides sailed close to the wind at times. But without watertight solutions to those problems, it would be madness to hold another public vote on a complex, emotive and simultaneously very technical issue only this time organised in more of a hurry. Besides, what would be on the ballot paper? If it’s a choice between more than two options, none is likely to command a majority. A yes-or-no vote on the final deal could work if there actually was a deal, but it’s hard to see how one can be negotiated unless the British prime minister can wrestle back control of her own position.
The urgent question now then is whether there’s any one version of Brexit on which parliament can conceivably, if reluctantly, agree. If there genuinely isn’t, that problem can only ultimately be resolved by a new parliament. A general election in which Labour finally gets off the fence, admitting that the Brexit promised during the referendum can’t be delivered and offering a genuinely alternative way out of the impasse, would be the only way out of constitutional gridlock.
Or to put it another way, if parliament genuinely has reached stalemate then the gamble that if Labour sat tight and waited long enough for the Tories to mess it up, they could then swoop in and collect the spoils would be close to paying off — just so long as it didn’t accidentally deliver a disastrous no-deal Brexit costing hundreds of thousands of jobs instead. Brace yourselves.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd.
Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist