There is an inevitable tension between acting on one’s beliefs in trying to find ways to keep Britain in the EU and acting in the national interest in the real world by preparing the ground for the upcoming Brexit negotiations with the EU.
Many believe that it is sheer madness for Britain to leave the EU. And there are many arguments to support that position. Sadly, if there is one thing that characterized the Remain campaign prior to the referendum, it is its sheer incompetence. Maybe driven by complacency. Maybe just, well, incompetence.
The referendum was lost and Britain seems headed for the exit. So, what to do if your aim is to find ways of keeping Britain in? There are broadly three options: fight for ways to have a second bite at the referendum decision (either through parliament or through a referendum on the deal), try to persuade parliament to overthrow the referendum decision, or try to keep Britain in the EU in all but name by retaining membership of the single market and customs union.
But fighting for these options creates a natural tension with the government.
Britain is about to enter a tough negotiation with the EU. If it has any chance of success in negotiating a reasonable deal, then the government must enter the negotiations in as strong a position as possible. This involves not chucking away any cards it might have and declaring a willingness to walk away from the negotiations should it not get a deal it likes. Any weakness on either of these points and Britain has lost the negotiations before they have even started.
That is why the Lords have it wrong with the two amendments they have passed on the Brexit Bill. The idea of giving away rights of residency to EU citizens without having reciprocal rights agreed for British citizens in Europe throws away an important negotiation card. It also gives the impression that our Lordships feel they have a greater duty of care towards EU citizens than they have towards British citizens.
As regards giving parliament a meaningful vote on the eventual deal (the second referendum idea now seems dead in the water), that depends what that means. If one of the options for such a vote is that the referendum result be put aside and Britain stays in, then this creates the mother of all incentives for the EU not to offer any meaningful deal at all (assuming they still want us in). That is what may be being hoped for. A bad deal on offer will convince the British people of the error of their ways and they will sympathise with a parliament that overthrows the referendum decision.
This is a reasonable approach. But it is fraught with danger. Should a bad deal be on offer there is the real possibility that it will confirm in the public’s mind that the EU is an odious institution of which they want no part. The spirit of the blitz may come to the fore and everyone will hunker down with renewed determination to strike out alone. In that case, Britain will crash out with no deal at all.
Further, there are, at the moment, simply not the numbers in parliament to overthrow the referendum outcome. It remains to be seen whether there will be the numbers to force the government to stay in the single market. That is probably the best outcome that can be hoped for for those who wish to remain.
The public’s reactions are largely unpredictable making it all very difficult. However, the referendum campaign itself should act as a salutary lesson. The Remain campaign understood the rational case for staying in. However, it totally misread human psychology and people’s emotional responses. And in the end these are the only things that matter. Is the same thing happening again here? Will good intentions be based on a total misreading of the British people’s likely reactions? Will their Lordships and others trying to keep Britain in, end up making the same mess of it as did the Remain campaign and driving the country into even more troubled waters?
Of course there are always alternative views.