High Horses and Big Asks

High Horses and Big Asks

by Miles Saltiel
article from Monday 21, January, 2019

JUST TWICE before this week can I remember Brits breaking free of their reserve to speak to strangers about politics. The first occasion was on the bus to school at the height of the Cuban missile crisis. The second was between strap-hangers at the time of the outbreak of the second Iraq war. And now on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week in restaurants and shops. Phlegmatic reserve has re-established itself: as things calm down partisans seem to be digging in, which doesn’t bode well for a resolution. But this week’s chaos has so much put the wind up politicians, journos and just plain folks as to mean poppycock aplenty in the ether. So let’s first dispose of two particular nonsenses.

Forget about a General Election. On Wednesday we saw that Labour can’t engineer one. This won’t change as there is no serious reason to expect the DUP or Tory Leavers to join the opposition in a future no-confidence vote. It’s no better across the lobby: the Tories are bankrupt before the electorate as they can hardly campaign for a deal which 118 of them brought to defeat on Tuesday. This means they have no differentiating policy on the great issue of the moment. What’s more, their leader is a proven vote-loser who has promised not to lead them into a future General Election. I see no way out of this. The Parliamentary party has twice missed its chance to get rid of May: the December party vote and Wednesday in the Commons, where no-one had what it took to make their support conditional on her defenestration. So no General Election.

Similarly, forget about a rerun of the June 2016 referendum. This is despite a run of polls showing that opinion is shifting towards Remain. Nor does it matter that a majority of MPs are said to be keen. The problem is that Brussels -at this point all about reducing uncertainty - won’t stand for it. Much as the EU would like the vote to be reversed, if it went the wrong way for them no one would be any further forward. This is because a straight “Leave vs Remain” vote gives Parliament no guidance as to the end-state of departure and this is what is messing everyone up. So the EU has no reason to permit an extension of the Article 50 notice period for such purposes. This means a straightforward rerun of the referendum is off. 

This is not, however, to rule out every kind of resolution by popular vote. A return to the public might be both decisive and legitimate, if the various parties got off their high horses. In return for Leavers eating the bitter pill of a second vote, Remainers would have to accept the principle that the vote was upon an end-state of departure.

To clarify, this proposal is not intended to dish the Remainers’ cause. They would be at liberty to campaign for the version of Brino of their choosing - at the most extreme for example, staying in both the Customs Union and the Single Market. On the other hand, if our purpose is certainty, sensible rules of the game might well enjoin them to coalesce around a single “more-aligned” offer; they would also do well to obtain assurances from the EU and EFTA that it was deliverable. Sensible rules would also oblige Leavers to coalesce around their own “less-aligned” solution - let’s say Canada, that is an arms-length FTA. They too would benefit from firming up their proposal with assurances from Brussels.

The EU may be expected to welcome such an exercise as committing the UK to orderly conduct, a definitive outcome and cash on the nail. But it too would have to choke down a bitter pill: that the Irish backstop would become a matter for renegotiation should the voters go for the “less-aligned” proposal.

Can all concerned get off their high horses? And can the Parliament, the Electoral Commission and the EU itself square away the complications of timing, in particular the more-or-less coincident EU parliamentary elections, from which it had been agreed to exclude the UK.

This scheme, a “more-aligned vs less aligned” referendum, puts big asks to both UK sides and to the EU, not to say calling for unprecedented qualities of leadership from May. I’m guessing the answer will come back “no”, not least because amicable relations seem close to breaking down between UK parliamentarians and must be at stretching point between London and Brussels. But you never know: needs must...Failing a wheeze along these lines, we are left with no deal. Five years ago, I suggested this was where Brexit would end up. Since June 2016, we’ve had thirty months on a roller-coaster which now seems to be taking us to just such a place. Full disclosure: I can live with it. But let’s be real: it hardly sets the heart to soar.

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