A couple of weeks ago, while walking the section of the Thames Path from Chertsey to Windsor, my bestie Jane and I found ourselves gazing towards Windsor Castle across the playing fields of Eton. The playing fields on which, according to the Duke of Wellington, the battle of Waterloo was won.
George Orwell, on the other hand – an Old Etonian himself – said that, while the battle of Waterloo may have been won on his alma mater‘s playing fields, the opening battles of all subsequent wars were lost there. To which we might plausibly add, “including those of the war for Brexit”.
For, ever since they confounded polling-based predictions to win their own Waterloo against the disorganised and poorly led forces of Remain in June 2016 – Wellington later described his last-gasp victory as “the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life” – the supposedly brilliant Brexit Boys of Eton such as Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg have managed to lose every single battle of Brexit, and may even have lost themselves the war.
Far from securing the “easiest trade deal in history”, over the past three years Johnson, Rees-Mogg and their less expensively-educated fellow Brexiteers David Davis, Steve Baker and Dominic Raab have been monstered by Michel Barnier and the EU27 at every turn. As I noted on this blog last August:
From the ‘staged approach’ to the negotiations, under which the UK’s disentanglement from the EU has had to be sorted before the future relationship can be discussed – remember ‘this will be the row of the summer’? – to the £35-39bn financial settlement – remember ‘go whistle’? – to the still not resolved NI border issue, Barnier has called all the shots. And, in doing so, he has simply carried out the mandate handed to him by the EU27 a few days after Theresa May stupidly triggered Article 50 before working out what she and her Cabinet want Brexit to mean.
[And] what this process will deliver – what it can only deliver – is what it was designed (by the EU27) to deliver: a blindfold Brexit deal, consisting of a Withdrawal Agreement covering the financial settlement (sorted), the transition period (sorted), citizens rights (almost sorted) and the NI border issue (not yet sorted), plus a quite possibly vague and definitely non-binding, so essentially meaningless, Political Declaration on the future relationship.
Barnier went on to seal that blindfold Brexit deal with Theresa May in November, of course, only for Johnson, Rees-Mogg, Davis, Baker and Raab to throw their toys out of the pram, before sulkily refusing to vote the deal through an increasingly dysfunctional House of Commons no less than three times. And that in turn led to the prized Exit Day slipping from 29 March to 22 May, then back to 12 April, and finally to 31 October (or sooner if Theresa May surprises everyone by conjuring up a way to get MPs to ratify her sorry deal, with the EU Council set to review the situation at its next formal meeting on 20-21 June).
Well played, chaps, well played. Three years on from the narrow vote to Leave the EU on 23 June 2016, and the country is about to hold elections to, er, the European Parliament. As the German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, noted caustically the week before last:
Just think about it: you say you want to leave the European Union, and then you hold a European Parliament election.
All of which has given more optimistic remainers – yes, they still exist – cause to think that the Eton Boys have farted away the entire Brexit war. On 14 April, Jon Lis of the think tank British Influence concluded that “the plain truth is that Britain will probably never leave the EU”, because the shenanigans of the previous few days had demonstrated that “Parliament will never support ‘no deal’, and the EU27 will never insist upon it”. And,
the longer this farce continues, the more people will decide that it is no longer worth the pain. [Theresa] May cannot deliver her deal. Parliament will continue in paralysis. All the while, the problem will remain a Brexit which we cannot implement without knee-capping our economy or our democratic oversight, or both. Now the threat of no-deal has vanished, we have time to consider if this is the path we really chose. It now seems likelier than ever that it is not.
Chapeau, Eton Boys!
Similarly, Brendan Donnelly of the Federal Trust concluded that “the trick of the European Elections in the UK could well have produced the treat of a People’s Vote before the end of 2019”, and on 11 April the never-short-of-an-expletive Ian Dunt noted that:
Time helps Remain. The more frequent these [Article 50] extensions, and the longer they are tabled for, the more the  Referendum sinks into the past. Each time it happens, Brexit feels more like a failed project, stalled on the side of the road … The truth is a [second referendum/People’s Vote/confirmatory public vote] does not need to be held by October. That is the wrong way to look at it. It only needs to be agreed by then. That would provide the argument for a further extension request in which to actually hold it.
A ‘further extension request’. Oh my. What joy we have to look forward to.
There is little if any doubt that a further Article 50 extension, beyond 31 October, would be necessary to hold a second referendum/People’s Vote/confirmatory public vote. As Ian Dunt concedes, there is “simply not enough time” to hold one before then (the Institute for Government and UCL Constitution Unit both suggest it would take a minimum of 21 weeks to legislate and prepare for, and hold, such a referendum, and that timetable unrealistically assumes that the necessary legislation would sail unmolested through a suddenly united Parliament in a matter of days). But whether a further extension request would be agreed to by the EU27 is very much a moot point. For, as Wolfgang Munchau noted in the Financial Times last week:
Come October, the threat is not one of a veto by the French President, but of a shifting consensus. Heiko Maas, the German Foreign minister, said [in a recent FT interview] that he believed the October deadline was hard. This is becoming a wider consensus view in Germany. Macron is not isolated. He is winning the argument.
Similarly, in a must-read essay published last week, Andrew Duff of the European Policy Centre suggests that “the EU Council’s Brexit rain-check [on 20-21 June] is critical: if by then nothing has moved in London to break the deadlock, the mood of the chiefs will harden, Angela Merkel among them”.
Will there be any significant progress by 20 June? Well, with Donald Tusk’s warning not to waste the time provided by the extension to 31 October ringing in their ears, MPs first gave themselves a week off, and once back in Parliament have contrived to do practically nothing on Brexit for another two weeks. As Martin Kettle noted in the Guardian last week, “the talks between the Government and Labour [that started on 3 April] continue. But they are not going anywhere … There is an increasing air of unreality about the whole thing”. Indeed,
It is now increasingly obvious that the two parties are going through the motions, and that the talks are doomed. Labour has more time on its side than the Tories, because Corbyn is happy to see the Tories humiliated in the EU elections at the end of May. Neither of them wants to be blamed for failed talks, but nor is either of them strong or determined enough to suggest the kind of grand bargain – parliamentary support for soft Brexit in return for a confirmatory referendum, for instance – for which the circumstances cry out.
This means two things. Both must now be faced. The first is that, as things stand, Parliament’s efforts to take control of Brexit from the government have failed. In March, this sovereign parliament route seemed to offer a way forward. May’s deal was dead. Backbenchers came up with other cross-party ideas. The Speaker facilitated the process. Marches and petitions gave a feeling of momentum. When it came to the crunch, however, MPs knew what they did not want – no deal – but not what they did want. This parliament turns out to be no more able to pass a soft Brexit than to pass a harder one, like May’s.
The second conclusion is therefore that soft Brexit itself has also failed. Soft Brexit was the least worst Brexit option. To have succeeded, however, May needed to reach out much earlier, probably in 2016, and certainly after the 2017 election. It never happened. Now, last-minute backbench attempts to craft a soft Brexit, led by Nick Boles and Stephen Kinnock, have failed. Cabinet efforts have failed too. Finally the inter-party attempt has ploughed into the sand as well. So soft Brexit must now be added to no-deal Brexit and May’s Brexit on the political scrapheap of the past three years.
Which neatly encapsulates the even bigger problem faced by advocates of a second referendum/People’s Vote/confirmatory public vote – including the more than 100 Labour MPs who have written to the NEC ahead of its crucial, manifesto-setting meeting today – than the lack of certainty over a (necessary) further extension of Article 50 in October: there is simply no credible Leave option to pit against Remain on any ballot paper, as all the possible options are now ‘on the political scrapheap’. Yet, as Andrew Duff notes in the above-mentioned essay,
The Electoral Commission would insist that the conduct of the referendum was both free and fair. The House of Commons would need to agree on a [ballot] question that did not effectively disenfranchise that large part of the electorate opposing not only the deal on offer, but also the revocation of Brexit. Parliament could overrule the Electoral Commission, but not without litigation and public outcry.
Similarly, noting that “campaigners for a [second] referendum want a straight choice between the negotiated Withdrawal Agreement and the option of remaining in the EU”, Alan Renwick of the UCL Constitution Unit has warned that “many Brexiteers find the deal anathema”, and
They would see such a vote as a stitch-up, delegitimising the result. A three-option referendum could alternatively be held, with a no-deal option alongside the other two. So long as a preferential voting system were used, that would be tenable. But most MPs see a ‘no deal’ Brexit as catastrophic. If voters chose it, would those MPs really be willing to acquiesce in all the preparations that would be necessary? If they cannot contemplate doing that, they should not put it before voters.
Over the weekend, a number of journalists and others had fun attacking the interim leader of the Independent Group, Heidi Allen, merely for exploring, in an interview in The House magazine, the challenge of trying to find a credible, democratic solution to the People’s Vote dilemma: what option(s), other than Remain, to have on the ballot paper. All that Allen said, in fact, is that she has “some sympathy” with those who would want to see ‘no deal’ on the ballot paper, not that it should be on the ballot paper. And she’s absolutely right to feel that way. Because, as Andrew Duff warns in the above-mentioned essay:
One can be sure that another referendum promoted specifically to overturn the result of the first would deepen the divisions in the nation in terms of social class, generation and province. Those who claim that a ‘People’s Vote’ would magically heal the rift across the country and settle the issue of Britain’s European policy once and for all are likely to be proved badly wrong. [And] Brussels knows that unless the result of a second referendum were a massive majority on a high turnout for revocation, nothing very much would be settled at all.
Furthermore, Duff asks, “is it realistic to imagine that the Conservative and Labour parties, having just ratified the Withdrawal Agreement in Parliament, would then go out to the country campaigning to reject it? And what would be the impact on the British system of parliamentary government were the people to pitch themselves directly against a deal just done by parliament?” To my mind, it really isn’t realistic to imagine such a campaign, and I agree with Duff when he concludes:
It would seem to be folly of the highest order, having made the big mistake of holding one referendum, to compound the error by holding another.
So, where does that leave us? Duff argues that “the most likely scenario is continued political paralysis in the UK, leading to a demand for a further extension of Article 50 in October”, while in his latest Brexit blog post Chris Grey notes that the 31 October deadline is “really not that far away” and the signs are that the UK is going to use it to “keep going round the same nonsensical loops as before”:
there is little evidence that [Donald Tusk’s] advice is being heeded [and], worse still, there is no evidence of a will or a way to do so.
Or, as Ian Dunt put it on Twitter yesterday:
There’s really nothing going on is there? It’s all dead. We’re going to piddle away this time until October and go into crisis mode again.
Whatever, I no longer have to worry about this for the day job (because I no longer have a day job). So here’s that (rather lovely) view across the playing fields of Eton. Next up, Windsor to Marlow.