Since the referendum vote in June 2016, the story of Brexit has been that of a stalemate. With Brexit currently caught in a parliamentary deadlock, the Brexit strategies of both the government and the official Labour opposition have collapsed. There is no agreement within both parties as to how and where to move.
As the clock ticks to the legally-binding March 29 deadline for Britain’s departure from the European Union (EU), one proposal that’s very likely to command the support of majority of MPs is to remove the ‘No deal’ option off the table. Everything else is only a matter of speculation and conjecture.
There are two major factions in British parliament: one that sees a strategic interest in remaining with the EU and the other that sees the EU’s decline and thus believes that Britain would be better off without it. The current situation with regard to Britain boils down to one simple fact: neither of the two factions so far currently holds the resources to defeat the other.
Those who negotiated and drafted the withdrawal deal were caught in this dilemma between both factions. Hence the stalemate in absence of a deal that would enjoy widespread support from either side. This is one reason why Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal was rejected last Tuesday, while she won the confidence vote a day later.
The deal was rejected by an overwhelming majority with 230 MPs voting against it. Of those, 118 were from Mrs May’s own Conservative party. It was the largest defeat for a sitting government in recorded British parliamentary history and showed just how unpopular the deal was.
Such a big rejection of the deal, stuck with the EU after nearly two years of negotiations, throws more doubt about the Brexit process. The deal covered some hugely important issues like what will happen to British citizens living in EU and vice versa and how much money the UK will have to pay as cost for leaving the EU.
But another important and the most controversial was the issue of the ‘backstop’: a kind of safety net designed to avoid physical border checks between Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK, and the Republic of Ireland, a member of the EU.
With Brexit date little more than two months away and Britain not closer to any agreement on how it will leave the EU, conservative MPs are said to be deeply divided about how the prime minister should adapt her deal to win over hostile lawmakers. Mrs May was scheduled to table a motion on her proposed way forward (Plan B) on Monday to which MPs can make amendments.
These will then be voted on January 29. Meanwhile, a Yougov poll undertaken for the People’s Vote campaign, which was released last week, found that the UK would vote to Remain part of the EU by a 12 percentage margin in a second referendum: that is 56 percent of the population would vote to Remain in the EU, compared to 48 percent who voted Remain in the June 2016 referendum. The 12 per cent Remain lead is the highest since the withdrawal negotiations with EU began.
The problem with the current impasse on Brexit process is that time is running out. And there is much to solve and lot to legislate. The EU also has to agree to any new approach. Among the possibilities that are likely to emerge at this late stage, a no deal Brexit is most likely to be averted. This will require extension of Article 50 by several months, if parliament cannot reach a consensus on the way forward by early March.
This would give the government and lawmakers the necessary space to debate and work out a solution to the impasse, without a threat of an imminent crash-out. Experts believe that Britain faces three options: a Canada-model hard Brexit (free trade agreement in goods with EU), a Norway-style soft Brexit (to get full access to the EU single market), or putting the question again to the British population.
Massive street protests in recent months and the passionate people’s vote campaign are obvious indication of the fact that pro-EU sentiment is very strong in Britain: people are keen to protect their EU rights as much as they want to protect their British freedom. None of the arguments given by pro-Brexit faction against the idea of another vote make any sense.
The Brexiteers seem to be motivated by the fear that the original Brexit result might get overturned by a second vote. The claim that a second referendum would be ‘undemocratic’ is fallacious because a plebiscite by its very nature is not undemocratic as long as it meets a number of basic criteria about the wording of the question.
Another argument against second referendum is equally fallacious: ‘people have already voted’. The first referendum was quite vague: people were asked to vote on the general question of Leave versus Remain, not on actual details of the consequences of Brexit and the kind of Brexit the UK government and the EU have agreed upon. The outcome was also not decisive enough: 51.9 percent for Leave and 48.1 percent for Remain.
Therefore, it’s perfectly legitimate and democratic to ask the electorate if they are really fine with Brexit as it would actually work out. The first referendum result was largely an outcome of fear of migrants and falsehoods about many ‘benefits’ of leaving the EU. The second vote would be an outcome of a question to an electorate fully aware of the issues and stakes.
Prior to the referendum, British MPs were called to declare their position on Brexit. Those backing Leave numbered 158; those backing Remain numbered 479, Mrs May and Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn included. The Conservative party was however, deeply divided on the issue: 138 in favour of Leave and 158 for Remain. The Labour was quite united though: 218 in favour of Remain against only 10 for Leave.
Had Brexit been decided by a parliamentary vote, the issue would have been settled there and then by an overwhelming majority in favour of Remain. Instead of opting for a parliamentary vote, the then prime minister David Cameron scheduled a referendum, a huge mistake of asking Britons to vote on a massive decision in a snap judgement. This needs a review and hence a second referendum wouldn’t be undemocratic.
A L I Chougule is an independent senior journalist.