Sunday, 7 January 2018

Winner takes all, but victory is Pyrrhic

Theresa May's Brexit plan, which entails leaving the EU's Single Market (which the UK itself essentially created) and not being part of a customs union with the EU, is the most extreme form of Brexit shy of a "no deal" situation (which would be utterly disastrous).

In pursuing this hard Brexit, May is ignoring the views of the 48 per cent of referendum voters who backed Remain. She's also ignoring the narrowness of the result, the vagueness of the referendum question, the many lies told by the Leave campaign, the likely preferences of EU citizens resident in the UK, the Remain majorities in Scotland and Northern Ireland, the preferences of most businesses and, last but not least, the fact that young people, who will have to live with the effects of Brexit the longest, overwhelmingly favoured Remain.

Why is May doing this? She was herself a remainer, after all, albeit not a very effective one.

In large part, she's probably doing it because she's wanted to be prime minister all her life, and she knows that she would face a leadership challenge from hard-core eurosceptic Tories if she pursued a softer Brexit. She's putting her career ahead of the country.

But it seems to me she's also probably been enabled and emboldened by the standard model of British politics, which is the first-past-the-post electoral system.

Under FPTP, the party that wins an outright majority can implement its manifesto in full - or in practice can do whatever the hell it likes - with no regard to the extent to which any given policy was emphasised in the election, the level of support for it among its own voters, the divergence on that issue in the opposing parties' manifestos, or the level of support for those policies among the opposing parties' voters.

The public mostly puts up with this, in part probably because people hope that their party will win next time, and in part probably because people are now so weary of politics in general that they can't be bothered to kick up a fuss.

But Brexit is different, or ought to be. First, the closeness of the result and the preference for Remain among young people make it very likely that there will be an outright majority in favour of Remain in the near future. That's assuming that there isn't already such a majority, which there might well be given the number and importance of the Leave lies that have now been exposed. Is it really wise to go through the horrendously costly and time-consuming process of leaving, only to then attempt to reverse that process in a few years' time?

Second, while we can probably assume that most Remain voters would favour staying in the Single Market and joining a customs union, while most Leave voters wouldn't, we don't really know. Certainly there are some Leave voters who favour those softer Brexit options.

So the fairest, least divisive, least disruptive options would be to recognise the closeness of the result and pursue a compromise remain or compromise soft Brexit, or hold a second referendum on the nature of the Brexit.

Unfortunately, the Labour opposition leader is an undercover leaver, and has done little if anything to oppose May's damaging actions, just as he did so little during the referendum campaign.

Hence it's fallen to rebels in both parties, like Anna Soubry and Chuka Umunna, to provide the checks and balances that have been so sadly lacking.

Charles Tannock was one of three rebel Tory MEPs among 20 who signed a letter last week calling on May to remain in the Single Market and join a customs union with the EU.

As the Guardian reported, he "described the 52% victory for leave in the EU referendum as a margin “not convincing for Brexit, let alone the hardest of Brexits” given the scale of constitutional change".

Or as Andrew Adonis put it in his letter resigning his position on May's cross-party infrastructure commission:

“If Brexit happens, taking us back into Europe will become the mission of our children's generation, who will marvel at your acts of destruction.”

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