Britain’s prime minister has been remarkable in resolutely following a ruinous path that she keeps insisting remains the least perilous road to Brexit.
Theresa May’s first crime against logic was to trigger Article 50 without a plan of what to do on 29 March 2019 if no deal had been struck with Brussels.
Her second was to forfeit any bargaining power she had by accepting Michel Barnier’s two-phase negotiation (first London delivers all that Brussels demands, then Brussels considers what London wants).
May’s two colossal errors combined to allow a gloating European Commission to dictate to her a withdrawal agreement that, independently of whether one is pro-Leave or pro-Remain, resembles the kind of treaty imposed upon a nation defeated at war. Unsurprisingly, Brexit has turned into a process tearing Britain apart while revealing its constitutional inadequacies.
The next few weeks are depressingly predictable.
The prime minister will continue to run down the clock putting all the pressure on Remainers, both Tory and Labour, to avert a no-deal Brexit by accepting hers. That was the point of backing the Brady amendment on Tuesday: to take Brexit revocation off the table, gain two weeks during which to pretend to negotiate with a European Commission that does not have the mandate to negotiate, and then take a version of the same withdrawal agreement, possibly with some pointless addenda, to parliament.
If her blackmail fails again, she will apply for an extension of Article 50 until 1 July to start the same war of attrition anew.
It is imperative that May is prevented from following this path. Those who can stop her and fail to do so will not be forgiven by at least one generation of Britons. Which brings me to my friend and comrade Jeremy Corbyn and his team. Labour’s leadership understands that, with weeks to go before the cliff’s edge, Niccolò Machiavelli’s counsel (see below) applies just as much to them too.
Irresolute princes, to avoid present dangers, generally follow the neutral path, and are generally ruined.
Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince
Until now it was right and proper for Labour to avoid distracting a Tory government while it was making a mess of things. Jeremy Corbyn’s critics were wrong to chastise him for delaying to call a vote of no confidence, or for not backing a second referendum. Labour just did not have the numbers to win such votes.
However, the time has come for Jeremy Corbyn to give a Speech of Hope for Britain, one that contains a clear vision of a country that heals itself after two years of wanton destruction by a short-sighted, clueless prime minister thinking solely of the unity of her divided government and party.
Jeremy’s speech must build hope upon a foundation of realism, stating clearly what the Labour leader would do if he were to move into 10 Downing Street tomorrow morning. In such a speech I would like to hear him announce that, in view of the current damaging impasse, only a people’s debate can turn a disaster into an opportunity for national renewal. This debate should be modelled on the Irish citizens’ assembly which produced a remarkable convergence of public opinion on the nation’s abortion legislation before a referendum could be held profitably.
The UK assembly’s remit would extend beyond Brexit to engulf the British Constitution (e.g. the creation of one or more English parliaments, the reform of the electoral system) that Brexit proved to be in serious need of revision. Once the assembly has formulated the options to be put to a referendum by 2021 (including an application to re-join the EU, a hard Brexit, Norway Plus etc.), voters will have at least another year to debate them.
To allow for this celebration of democracy, prime minister Corbyn would conclude the Article 50 process on 29 March with a withdrawal agreement foreshadowing a three-year steady-as-she-goes transition period and replacing May’s backstop with a permanent customs union for Northern Ireland. In essence, a Labour government accepts the possibility of customs’ checks across the Irish Sea in the interest of preserving the Good Friday Agreement, and without pre-empting the findings of the citizen’s assembly that will decide the final UK-EU arrangements.
Jeremy Corbyn’s Speech of Hopemust, of course, end with forward guidance on what he will do from the opposition benches in the next decisive weeks.
I would like to hear him say that he will not support any short-term extension of Article 50 that merely allows May more rope to hang herself and the country. And that he will support any amendment that prevents Britain crashing out – or back into the EU – without that utterly crucial democratic agent of a people’s debate, and an honest referendum on the available options within the next two years.Russia and EU may hold high-level talks on Venezuela, says envoy