Overwhelmingly, the view of yesterday’s events in the Commons is that the Prime Minister has won a battle but is no closer to winning the war.
The assumption is she will be rebuffed by EU officials and European leaders and that we will be back at square one without a deal that commands a majority and with time running out. Many see an extension to Article 50 as inevitable.
If you harbour hopes of staying in the EU this leaves two scenarios, only one of which is being discussed.
What happens if Theresa May fails?
The obvious strategy is to assume that the Prime Minister will fail to get the assurances her Party demands. Having brought back Deal 2.0 and lost, and assuming the EU will not extend Article 50 when there is no viable route to a solution, Mrs May (or a hastily installed successor) will have no choice to go to the country, either through a referendum or a General Election, asking for the endorsement Parliament is refusing to give. This, so the scenario goes, is then the opportunity to reverse the decision of June 2016.
But there is a big drawback and a big risk with this strategy. The first is that we are effectively accepting that the biggest decision our country has faced for generation now lies in the hands, not of British citizens, but of EU officials and the backbenchers of the Conservative Party. The risk is that if the PM does pull it off, and if doing so takes several weeks of toing and froing, there will be no time to have a proper public debate about the clarified choice we would then face.
Across the last few fevered months of speculation the question of how we should leave the EU has become impossibly entangled with the question whether we should leave the EU. On the one side, soft and hard Leavers have spent most of their time disagreeing with each other.
On the other, those advocating a second referendum have proved themselves generally incapable of answering basic questions like ‘what will the options be?’, ’how many will there be?’ and ‘what would be the voting system?’. Scenario one risks this continuing to be the case until it is too late to do anything other than accept the deal as a fait a compli. Beware the ides of March.
What happens if Theresa May succeeds?
Scenario two is based on assuming the Prime Minister will get the words she needs from Europe to craft a Parliamentary majority. Whatever these words say, their meaning is likely to be ‘yes the UK can leave the backstop as long as it understands that for the foreseeable future doing so would have major and adverse consequences for the UK and its relationship with Europe’. After all, however perverse, all countries should have the right to self-harm.
Based on making this assumption we can then start the debate we should be having, namely ‘now we know exactly what the choice is – this deal or staying in the EU – what do we want?’. To put it another way (and this leaves out the million and half new voters), ‘now we know the choice, how many of the 52% who voted leave still want to leave and how many of the 48% who voted remain still want to remain?’. On the one hand, with a viable deal on the table, some of the latter may no longer feel as concerned about the consequences of leaving. On the other hand, some of the former, understanding now the circumscribed nature of our freedom outside the Union, may also have changed their mind. After all, opinion polls have consistently shown less than quarter of the public back the current deal as the best option for Britain. Is it likely that some backstop words will significantly shift that number?
Some will argue that my entire argument is just a pretext for the ongoing conspiracy to thwart the wishes of the people as expressed thirty-one months ago. So be it. But, for what it’s worth, as someone more focussed on the dangers of social polarisation and the decline in faith in democracy than our relationship with flawed European institutions, I am less concerned about the outcomes of a further debate than with the consequences for our society of most people feeling we have made a choice without being given a choice. I only wish there were Leavers who saw renewing public consent as part of their vision of a Britain in charge of its destiny.
The route to a better debate
So, strange though it might sound, assuming Mrs May will pull it off may be the better route to the debate we must surely have before we leave. The question then would be how meaningfully to engage the public in understanding and guiding the actual choice we face in 2019. Regular readers of this post won’t be surprised to hear that I would advocate some form of deliberative democracy as an important part of such a process. And, given the lead in time for such events, perhaps someone should be starting to plan it now.