A second EU vote would be a dereliction of duty and unleash appalling hatred and bitterness.
We can now see that when Theresa May said “no deal is better than a bad deal”, what she really meant was that no deal was not just worse than a bad deal but was in fact her personal red line.
This was singularly unfortunate, since it was obvious from the start that the EU would never agree to anything that would enable Britain to do what the Brexit vote intended it to do: become competitive and prosper.
Since the EU is a protectionist cartel designed to stifle competition and freedom from its diktats, no-deal Brexit was always the only show in town.
The EU understood, though, that May wouldn’t countenance leaving without a deal. With the assistance of Britain’s Sir Humphreys, it deployed this pre-emptive surrender as the weapon to force Britain to choose between a deal that effectively keeps it attached to the EU and no deal.
It thought it was thus making Britain an offer it couldn’t refuse. But the EU doesn’t begin to grasp the dogged British attachment to national independence and sovereign power over laws passed by parliament.
The most arrogant Remainers have contemptuously dismissed such affection for sovereignty as “ideology” and “principles”. These apparently have no place in the serious business of government, which is all about negotiation and compromise.
But compromise was never an option if the referendum result was to be honoured. For compromise means half-in, half-out. And half-out means still remaining in.
We are, however, where we are: in a profound political and constitutional crisis. So what is to be done? Let’s search for the least worst alternative.
Accepting May’s deal should be unthinkable. It would tie Britain under the EU’s control without us even having a seat at the table. Worse even than cementing our loss of sovereignty, it would give the EU the power effectively to dismember it by dividing Britain from Northern Ireland.
Renegotiating these terms is not an option. The EU said so, and anyway there would be no point in Britain negotiating as an even more craven supplicant.
A second referendum should be rejected as profoundly undemocratic. At best it would ignore the result of the 2016 plebiscite as well as a manifesto commitment; at worst, it would be a cynical attempt to reverse the Brexit vote. It would also be an astonishing dereliction of political duty. Government would be dumping the mess it has itself made onto the laps of the people, telling them to sort it out. And what would be the question? May’s deal or no deal? Leave or remain again? The hatred, bitterness and recriminations this would unleash would be appalling. There would be the same arguments on both sides, the same contested claims, the same lack of reliable information about what is in large measure unpredictable.
So that brings us to leaving without a deal. Many are against this on the grounds that it would be so catastrophic any alternative would be better. Really? The economist Patrick Minford has said fears that the EU will introduce costly border delays or new demands on product standards are groundless. The WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement, the WTO Technical Barriers to Trade Agreement and the Kyoto Convention of the World Customs Organisation all forbid such moves.
They also commit the EU, he says, to computerised pre-cleared border processing activities and physical inspections (typically only about 2 per cent of shipments) that must be intelligence led.
The president of the Calais region, moreover, has made clear that its interests lie in continuing to trade smoothly with Britain — not least because ports such as Rotterdam, Zeebrugge, Antwerp and Hanover are poised to take its business should it not do so.
We’ve been told that no-deal would mean a breakdown in supplies of food and medicines, or planes unable to fly in or out. The former Brexit secretary David Davis has said these claims are “proven nonsense” and “scare stories”. Willie Walsh, chief executive of International Airlines Group, has categorically rejected the idea that flights between Britain and the EU would be grounded.
In any event, why assume that the EU wouldn’t itself suffer badly from punishing Britain like this? As the former chairman of the foreign affairs select committee Crispin Blunt has said, leaving on WTO terms is entirely manageable “unless the EU is going to act as a hostile power against the UK and do as much damage to itself as it does to us in the process”.
Of course there would be problems and difficulties in such a momentous disengagement. The calculation made by many Brexiteers, however, is that in the long run it would be worth it, both in terms of regaining the power of national self government and the economic advantages of independent trade deals.
If Britain leaves with no deal, Remainers may shout and scream. If the Brexit vote is betrayed by parliament having given the people a choice and then refusing to honour it, the entire democratic system will be tarnished in the eyes of millions.
The people did not vote in the referendum for any kind of deal or none. They simply voted to leave. If that is not now honoured, the damage not just to the Conservative Party but to democracy itself will be immeasurable.
The government must not dump its mess into the laps of the people.
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