What the public was sold in 2016 and since was never possible. This deal was doomed from the start by the failure to settle Brexit’s inherent contradictions
When Alice says “one can’t believe impossible things” in Through the Looking-Glass, the Queen replies she’s believed “as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” Alice just hadn’t had much practice.
Perhaps this explains why so many have confused Brexit with breakfast over the last two years. Politicians from across the spectrum have become well-practiced in believing at least two impossible things on the way to honouring the 2016 referendum: that we can leave the European Union, with all its attendant legal and financial obligations, while at the same time maintaining all the benefits of membership.
Descriptions of what Brexit actually means for the UK’s future have become a new sub-genre of literary nonsense, relying on science fiction for “technological solutions” to the Irish border, or magical realism for future trade relations. Brexit, after all, doesn’t mean the most important meal of the day. Nor does it simply mean “Brexit”; not red, white, blue, or any other hue. Brexit should have meant hard choices and trade-offs, which the prime minister — along with her outriders in the press, her tormentors in the European Research Group, and her opponents on the Labour front bench — has steadfastly refused to be honest about with the British people. Instead, after she was finished with infuriating tautologies and vacuous nationalist pomp, Theresa May told us what Brexit really means: a contradiction in terms.
Today the vote on the prime minister’s deal was postponed with the government facing certain defeat in the Commons, the only question being by how damning a margin. May said she would seek “reassurances” from the EU on the Northern Ireland backstop, but the European Commission, along with the Irish prime minister, have already said there is no renegotiating the deal. It’s highly likely then that this simply delays her deal’s inevitable parliamentary censure. Ordinarily a rebellion of this scale would herald the fall of the government, but, as is abundantly clear, these are not ordinary times. May might well hang on in No 10 through gridlock and the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, but any chance of passing a withdrawal bill even partially compliant with her Brexit red lines will be gone.
Her former close advisor Nick Timothy wrote in The Daily Telegraph that last week was “the week Brexit died”, but Brexit didn’t die today or last week. Brexit didn’t die when the European Court of Justice ruled that Article 50 can be unilaterally revoked. It didn’t die when the cabinet mutinied over the draft agreement, nor did it die at Chequers. It didn’t die when Parliament agreed to a “meaningful vote” on the final withdrawal agreement over the summer, and it didn’t die when the DUP wrecked the “sufficient progress” agreement last December. Brexit didn’t even die when Theresa May lost her majority in a disastrous election campaign with Timothy himself behind the wheel.
It didn’t die because Brexit is, and always has been, impossible. By this I mean to draw a distinction between Brexit as a merely descriptive event — i.e. Britain leaving the EU — that has been suggested variously since 1973, and Brexit as a concept, a sort of Platonic ideal, sold to the public by the Leave campaign and ratified by subsequent tortured attempts by Brexiteers and the government alike to define the country’s future after the EU.
Brexit-the-event can clearly happen — Britain can at some point assume a status similar to one of the many other nations that are outside of the EU. But reaching that status in a way that commands a majority of parliament and the approval of Brexiteers cannot happen. Brexit-the-ideal was doomed from the start, and the original sin was the ill-conception of David Cameron’s referendum, which required no manifesto from either campaign; no plan, blueprint or even a broad shape of how to fundamentally change the country’s constitutional arrangements after over 40 years of entanglement with the continent.
This accountability vacuum allowed campaigners to establish Brexit-the-ideal as all things to all people. End freedom of movement? Absolutely. Stay in the single market? No problem. Strike our own trade deals? Of course. Keep Ireland borderless? Not an issue. The referendum result — predicted by no one in Whitehall — gave an instruction to fundamentally upend the country’s constitution with no policy prospectus on how to do it, while keeping the composition of Parliament unchanged with no inkling as to who should do it. Overnight Britain was rendered government-less and ungovernable, with an undeliverable mandate for a mutually contradictory Brexit.
One might have some sympathy for Theresa May who was left to pick up the pieces in Cameron’s wake as he whistled off into the night, but she maintains her fair share of the blame. Her reckless snap election aside, she chose, unforced by the majority of her MPs, to take a maximal interpretation of the referendum result as requiring an independent trade policy and the end of both free movement and the ECJ’s jurisdiction, thus necessitating the UK’s exit from the single market and customs union. The prime minister could have been honest that the “take back control” rhetoric of the referendum campaign would come at an economic cost. Instead she and her cabinet have perpetuated the myth that we can have our cake and eat it.
Alternatively, she could have held that a 52–48 result called for a conciliatory approach, seeking to leave the EU’s key institutions and more strictly enforce immigration rules, but remaining in its regulatory orbit so as not to risk economic prosperity or the fragile peace in Ireland. This would have taken strong leadership which the polls in early 2017 showed she was in a position to provide, but either through cowardice or long-held enmity towards immigration, she didn’t deliver.
And so instead we have this withdrawal agreement that no one likes, and irreconcilable differences that, more than two years on, are no closer to being reconciled. The Brexiteer ultras maintain “the will of the people” is leaving the single market and customs union, anything less is not Brexit in any meaningful way. Remainers and moderates say this will be economically ruinous. All the while logic insists this would entail a hard Irish border, or at least an indefinite backstop, making Brexit either far more toxic than promised, or illusory. Whatever comes of this forsaken and deleterious process is certain to fall far short of any mandate — however vague — granted by the electorate on 23 June, 2016.
Save for parliamentary intervention and an extension or withdrawal of Article 50 — for either a second referendum or a general election — Brexit-the-event will occur through the automatic operation of law, with or without a deal, on 29 March next year. But Brexit-the-ideal, promised to the British people in the summer of 2016, and continually reaffirmed since — the land of milk and honey; the sunlit uplands; the billions for the NHS; the control of our borders without a border; the access to the market without the rules of the market — is impossible.
This is due to a simple fact that was entirely knowable two years ago: the UK can have economic continuity and a borderless Ireland, or complete control of its borders and laws, but it cannot have both, any more than a triangle can have four sides. Or than a rabbit can talk.
Of course, Alice was wrong; one can indeed believe impossible things. It just doesn’t make them any more possible.