"Just six months left to foil a hard Brexit - here's how"

Everything now depends on anti-Brexiteers uniting to stiffen the sinews of wavering MPs

Timothy Garton Ash
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(Tanjug/AP, file)
(Tanjug/AP, file)

If all goes according to the Brexiteers' plan, we will wake up exactly one year from today [i.e. 30 March] to find that Britain is no longer a member of the European Union. In practice, we anti-Brexiteers have just six months to avert that outcome. For if, in its 'meaningful vote' this autumn, the British parliament decides to accept whatever interim deal has been cobbled together by British and EU negotiators, that will be the effective point of no-return.

Brexiteers see this and now have a strategy of Leninist clarity: do whatever it takes to get Britain to that point. Even the former UKIP leader Nigel Farage is now on this Brexito-Bolshevik line. The end justifies the means. Never mind what compromises you make over the transition period, never mind which of your own previous red lines you cross, just get the country through the door marked Out. Everything else can be sorted out later.

Anti-Brexiteers, by contrast, have ten different strategies and therefore none. If we don't get our act together, we will be defeated, amidst a fog of confusion and deceit.

Defeat would probably look something like this: by hook or by crook, by nudge and by fudge, the British and EU negotiators reach a form of words this autumn. Seemingly unbridgeable differences like those over the Irish frontier are somehow finessed, by a combination of genuine compromise, complex solutions and verbal ambiguity. The 'framework for the future' is vaguer than an Anglican prayer, with lashings of Brussels fudge and the deafening clang of cans being kicked down the road.

Our EU partners finally agree to this, in the wee hours of a European Council meeting scheduled for 18/19 October, because that is the EU's characteristic culture of compromise, because they just want to get the whole damned thing out of the way so they can concentrate on all the other pressing issues facing the EU, and – let's be clear – because they know that once Britain is legally out, its negotiating position will be even weaker than it is today.

Prime Minister Theresa May's internally divided government goes with this messy deal, because its task is to 'deliver Brexit' and because it knows the Conservative party could fall apart otherwise. Most Conservative MPs then vote for it, many of them with a heavy heart and a bad conscience, because the Tory whips have gripped them by the most sensitive parts of their anatomies, because they fear deselection in their constituencies and character assassination in the Daily Mail, because 'the people have spoken' and because they are told the alternative is a Labour government under Jeremy Brezhnev. A few brave Tory rebels, the true Churchills of our time facing off against pseudo-Churchills like Boris Johnson, are just not enough. And thus Britain scrapes and crawls its way to the exit.

This, or something like it, remains the most likely outcome, and it would be disastrous. For, as a former Conservative minister in the Department for Exiting the EU memorably puts it, we would be walking off a gangplank into thin air. Britain would then spend years actually negotiating what Brexit means, from an even weaker position, with the negative consequences gradually becoming apparent through the 2020s. National decline by a thousand small steps.

To avoid this, anti-Brexiteers need to unite around a clear strategy for these decisive six months. At its core must be working on the minds, hearts and consciences of MPs [cut for print 650 MPs (although the Irish nationalist Sinn Fein seven don't take their seats). The House of Lords is currently in the process of hanging an onion string of amendments around the EU Withdrawal Bill, including one to keep alive the option of Britain staying in a customs union. These, and possibly a separate customs bill from the government, should come to the House of Commons in May. That will be a first big moment. A huge majority of MPs want Britain to stay in a customs union. If enough Tory MPs put country before party, the government will be defeated on that.

At this point there is a tactical concern. I have heard a leading Brexiteer cabinet minister say off-the-record that if Parliament voted to stay in a customs union, he could just about live with that. Chancellor of the Exchequer (finance minister) Philip Hammond would like nothing better, and May herself knows it is in the national interest – also because it reduces, though does not solve, the problem of the Irish border. What if the government went for some version of remaining in a customs union? Wouldn't that peel off sufficient wavering Tories, and a few more Labour Eurosceptics, so the government could push through this only slightly softer Brexit?

That is a risk we have to take. This would be a big defeat for the government, straining the Brexito-Bolshevik tactic of 'just get to the Exit', possibly to breaking point. The appetite for parliamentary rebellion usually grows with eating. The next step might be to push for staying in the single market.

But beyond this point, the politics are essentially wide open. Almost anything could happen on the road to autumn's meaningful vote. There is a slim chance that you could finally get to a parliamentary vote on whether, after all, there should be a people's vote (a.k.a. second referendum) on stepping away from the shambles of Brexit. Either of the main parties could split. There could be another election. Who knows. As Napoleon liked to say: On s'engage et puis on voit! (You engage, and then you see.)

At the same time we have to keep working on public opinion, which is in a weird state of cognitive dissonance. Only a few of those who voted for Brexit say they have changed their minds, and even some Remain voters say we should now go through with it. But a growing majority of respondents say the negotiations are going badly, Brexit will probably be bad for the economy and even for them personally. So: we're in a hole but keep digging! This is fertile ground for opening up a conversation. But let's be realistic: this amorphous thing called 'public opinion' is very unlikely to swing so decisively over the next six months that it transforms the politics of Brexit. What it can do is to influence the undecided MPs with whom the buck now stops.

So if you agree with the argument of this column, here's what you need to do: get hold of your MP, indeed of any MPs you can lay your hands on. Corner them in the street, accost them on the beaches, hail them in the hills, energise them by email, finger them on Facebook, tackle them on Twitter. Tell them their grandchildren will be asking 'what did you do in the great Brexit vote, Granddad?' (Or Grandma.) Tell them to vote with their consciences, and on their honest judgement of the national interest. Tell them to refuse the populist lie that democracy means one people, one vote, once. This, in our sovereign parliament, through our elected representatives, is true British democracy.

Timothy Garton Ash is professor of European Studies at Oxford University, where he leads the freespeechdebate.com project, and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His latest book is Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World

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