Almost three years after the Referendum there is no mystery about the Prime Minister’s goals. First she aims to keep her Party together, and second she aims to achieve a satisfactory exit from the European Union honouring the 2016 Referendum result. The second aim is impossible because of the first.
Drawing clear red lines at the beginning of the negotiations and sticking to them was Theresa May’s way of keeping the European Research Group (ERG) and other Brexiteers on board. This early decision and subsequent intransigence vitiated any possibility of a satisfactory agreement which a majority in Parliament might approve. She had no intention of allowing a meaningful vote until recently. And it was forced on her. After her abysmal performance in the June 2017 General Election that she had called, the Prime Minister was reduced to dependence on the DUP, and became trapped by the Irish issue and the ‘backstop’, an impediment of her own making. The way forward was blocked.
Theresa May has now been caught between the EU’s principled positions, and, latterly, their practical and legal difficulties over the May EU elections, on one hand, and the DUP + ERG + other Brexiteer lobby on the other. And she has repeatedly been forced to eat her own words, going back on entrenched positions. As a result her authority has declined to vanishing point. The Prime Minister’s early statement that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ has come back to haunt her, and us. Her negotiating partners, the EU Commission and the 26 EU states, reacting to this abject performance, have been reduced to incredulity. Britain has lost its reputation for sound governance. It has become, at best, an object of pity around the world, at worst a laughing stock.
The Brexiteers endlessly repeat that they are merely carrying out the democratic will of the British people, and this is echoed by a captive Prime Minister. It is a simple powerful argument. Though the claim to know exactly what Leave voters want, and wanted, is more than implausible. At an emotional level Leave for many may have meant a protest against the state of the nation.
The counter argument is not so simple: the referendum was deeply flawed by lies, fake-news and manipulation of social media and, possibly, secret foreign involvement. BREXIT was not the will of 48% of the British people who voted, and they have been ignored for three years. The argument essentially pits democracy and social stability against the probability of severe economic damage, and other grave negative impacts.
We now have much more knowledge of what is at stake in following different options. The Brexiteers’ emphasis on democracy makes the government refusal to countenance a people’s vote, which affords the democratic recognition that the British people have the right to choose from the different options now available, all the more telling. For it is obvious that those trying to block this democratic choice – and Theresa May is still trying to do so through her short extension request which aims to make it impossible – are fearful that a majority of the British public have understandably changed their mind.
Democracy is on the side of the Remainers. It is not too late to ask for a long extension, notify the Electoral Commission, and to demonstrate that democracy is not about one vote, one time, based on misinformation. The Prime Minister has three weeks in which to reverse her priorities and act in the genuine national interest. She inherited an intractable situation from her predecessor and should be accorded some sympathy. But if she is psychologically incapable of rising to the occasion and charting a new course she should go and give way to someone who can.
The People’s Vote march on Saturday 23 March will provide some indication of how the public is thinking. It also provides Theresa May with the opportunity for a change of heart and a belated act of bold leadership. She should take it.