Theresa May has lost control of Brexit

This is what happens when parliamentary democracies shuffle off responsibility

Philip Stephens

So this is what they meant by taking back control. Theresa May’s government has drawn up plans to allocate space on European ferries arriving at the British port of Dover. Trucks carrying medicines will get permits to make the crossing from Calais; so too, perhaps, those with components for vital business supply chains. Britain’s consumers have been warned. There will not be enough room for luxuries such as fresh fruit and vegetables.

Crashing out of the EU in March without a deal would see the restoration overnight of Britain’s national sovereignty. This surely would be Brexit at its purest — manna for those in Mrs May’s party seeking a complete rupture with the continent. Decisions on the opening and closing of ports and borders would be a matter for the Westminster government alone. Britain, in the lurid language of the Brexiters, would have cast off the shackles.

So runs the theory. Now the reality is beginning to impose itself. Calais-Dover by a large measure is Britain’s most important trade route. It operates with the consent and co-operation of France. Whitehall officials estimate the inevitable post-Brexit imposition at Calais of EU checks and controls would cut traffic — imports to, as well as exports from, Britain — by more than four-fifths. The effect would be to choke off supplies to much of British business and leave stranded in France much of the produce destined for British supermarket shelves. So much for sovereignty.

For the prime minister such horror stories — and this is one of many — are the only argument she has for the dismal deal she has negotiated with the EU27. It is not enough. The closer Brexit looms, the more obvious the prospective damage to the nation’s prosperity and security. Mrs May’s agreement would delay some of the consequences and throw a veil over others. Taken in the round, it is a charade — a hapless attempt to wish away the yawning gulf between abstract concepts of sovereignty and real national power.

Those tuning in to the parliamentary debate on the agreement could be forgiven for thinking the only big problem is a so-called backstop arrangement to guarantee an open border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. In truth, the backstop is simply a proxy for the wrangling about sovereignty. The vital substance of Britain’s decades-long engagement with Europe has been lost to arcane debates about supposed sovereignty. The Britain sought by the Brexiters is one of impotent isolation — a nation with an untrammelled right to harm itself.

In any event, MPs look set to throw out the prime minister’s package. The Conservative party’s Kamikaze Brexiters are clinging on to their Elizabethan fantasies of a “global Britain”. Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, is as reactionary as any in his views of Europe. Where English nationalists see an attempt by Brussels to suborn democracy, Mr Corbyn spies a vicious capitalist plot against the working classes. Most Labour MPs scorn their leader’s conspiracy theories, but then shrug their shoulders and vote along party lines.

The signs are there is a majority against a disorderly Brexit that would see Britain crash out of the Union. But to what purpose? Mrs May’s tortuous compromises have probably killed off the idea of a muddle-through Brexit. There might be just enough votes for an arrangement with the EU roughly comparable to that of Norway. But where is the political leadership to marshal such a majority?

Brexit has already done immeasurable damage to Britain’s international standing. Things could now get worse. What are friends and allies to make of the present spectacle in parliament? There could surely be nothing more humiliating than the failure of its politicians to agree among themselves as to the terms of Britain’s departure.

This is what happens when parliamentary democracies seek to shrug off responsibility. Referendums undermine political pluralism. As Margaret Thatcher used to say, they are a favourite device of demagogues and dictators. The so-called will of the people reduces liberal democracy to majoritarianism. In this case, parliament is now being asked to approve a divorce with Europe that most MPs believe will make the nation poorer and weaker.

As irony would have it, the advocate general of the European Court of Justice may have thrown a lifeline. The British government, he has advised, would be permitted by the EU treaty to withdraw unilaterally its Article 50 request to leave the EU. The Court’s judges have still to offer a final opinion, but precedent suggests they are likely to agree. Therein lies the opportunity for the prime minister to take back control.

Her last act in Downing Street — it is hard to see how she could long remain in office in the wake of a Commons defeat — could be to prepare to rescind Brexit. As a caretaker prime minister, Mrs May could ask the EU27 to stop the clock while the nation voted in the referendum it was denied in 2016 — a clear and transparent choice between sovereign isolation and the sometimes uncomfortable empowerment that comes with membership of the EU.

Mrs May had hoped her legacy would be that of the leader who took thecountry through Brexit while avoidinga violent rupture in the Conservative party. That cause is lost. History will anyway be a lot kinder if she gives the country the chance to think again.

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