The road along which the Brexit can has been kicked is very abruptly ending. Things are going to get bumpy and, in all likelihood, Theresa May is about to get stuck in the mud.
Seeing as we are on the last few miles of paved road, it seems like a good opportunity to look back on our Brexit “road trip” and remember how smooth and easy this was all supposed to be:
David Davis - “There will be no downside to Brexit, only a considerable upside.”
Michael Gove - “The day after we vote to leave, we hold all the cards and we can choose the path we want.”
John Redwood - “Getting out of the EU can be quick and easy – the UK holds most of the cards.”
Boris Johnson - “The cost of getting out would be virtually nil.”
Douglas Carswell “I think we could very easily get a better trade deal than we have at the moment.”
We were told Brexit would make us richer. We were promised more money for the NHS, lower taxes, more trade, more jobs. The Brexit process was supposed to be quick and painless.
None of this has turned out to be so.
We will be undoubtedly poorer (as the government’s own forecasts show), meaning less money for everything – from the NHS, to schools and pensions. Our trading prospects are dire compared to what we are signed up to now within the EU, and less trade means fewer jobs.
Theresa May, when defending her own deal, could not say that it would make us better off than we are today. Chancellor Philip Hammond admitted this week that our economy will be smaller, and Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt defended the deal saying it “mitigates most of the negative impacts” – which would not have been so convincing splashed across the side of a bus. Even leading Brexit supporters admit that this deal is worse than remaining in the EU.
As the Brexit motorway to paradise fails to materialise, and the realities of the long difficult road ahead are mapped out, the number of war comparisons have become as common as they are tasteless – calls for Britain to endure, rediscover its blitz mentality, “keep calm and carry on”.
For what purpose?
The famous British stiff upper lip is admirable, but utterly wasted on a policy that is completely avoidable and reversible. George Orwell described Britain as a place where “such concepts as justice, liberty and objective truth are still believed in”. The objective truth here, by any measure, is that the Brexit on offer today is not the one promised two years ago. In addition, those 2 years have revealed scores of complications and unintended impacts which were absent from the EU referendum campaigns.
So what do we do now?
A people’s vote can be criticised for many things; the timing and logistics will be difficult. I have no doubt the campaign will be problematic and divisive, and there can be no guarantees of the result. However, one thing it cannot be criticised for is being “undemocratic”. In fact, referring a decision back to the public is the very definition of democracy, and so is the ability to change our mind when we have more information.
Let’s also remember we had a general election in 2017, just two years after the last one in 2015, and just one year after the nationwide EU referendum. In 1974, the UK had two general elections in one year. When politics becomes gridlocked, when politicians cannot find a way forward, we must go back to the public and ask, “which way do you want to turn?”
Pursuing Brexit to honour a 2 year-old vote, which may no longer reflect public opinion, as most polling suggests, for the grand prize of “damage limitation”, feels to me like a painful and pointless exercise.
We now know the fast, smooth Brexit motorway is in fact a bumpy dirt track, full of unknown potholes and dicey blind bends. Is it not worth pulling over to check up on the passengers in the back? Do they still want to continue?