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Brexit reveals our political system is failing. The 48% must have a voice

February 10, 2018 12:51 PM
By Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian

Carrie Hynds at StopBrexit march (Duncan Moore)The government is on a course that defies all logic, but the opposition refuses to oppose. No wonder people feel betrayed

Britain makes its most disastrous mistakes when its two main parties agree with each other. So it has proved in the past - and so it is proving now. Next month will mark the 15th anniversary of the fateful night in the House of Commons when Labour and Tory frontbenches united in whipping their MPs to vote for military action in Iraq. Yes, there were rebellions: some 84 Labour members said no to Tony Blair's war, while 69 abstained. But the official tally - 412 out of 659 - spoke of cross-party consensus. Outside the Palace of Westminster, the country was rancorously divided on this fundamental question. But inside, the prime minister and the leader of the opposition were on the same side.

Improbable as it may sound, given the ideological distance between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn, when it comes to the dominant issue of the hour the same is true today. We are marching towards the national calamity of Brexit with our two main parties in lockstep. Of course, there are differences over phasing and timing - transition periods and the like - but on the fundamentals of in or out, there is unity. Indeed, the consensus is even greater now than it was 15 years ago. The tally that will astonish future generations is the vote a year ago to trigger article 50: 498 to 114.

Of course, the context is different: this time MPs feel duty-bound to honour a referendum verdict. But the effect is the same: the country advancing towards disaster with the opposition doing little more than chipping in with occasional advice about the pace or the route, rather than insisting that we stop, reflect and turn round.

Witness the events of this week. We got a peek at the government's own analysis forecasting that a no-deal Brexit would hit growth across the country, damaging the prospects of areas that voted leave most of all: the north-east slowing by 16% over the next 15 years, the West Midlands by 13%. Even the softest Brexit, with Britain staying in the single market, will hurt, while no-deal would send prices up by 21%. The Brexiteers' only response is to say that you can never trust economic forecasts, not even the government's. (Worth filing that one away for the next election, when they brandish the stats predicting economic Armageddon under a Labour government.)

This too was the week when the Brexit "war cabinet" - their own, revealing phrase - gathered to decide what their own opening position is for EU talks that are already under way. Naturally, there was no agreement. And when the trade minister Greg Hands was asked by Andrew Neil to say whether Britain sought to be in or out of the customs union during the transition, Hands could not answer. Meanwhile, Brussels warned that it could hit the UK with economic sanctions if Britain is deemed to have violated the terms of the transition period.

That came as the Japanese ambassador offered a warning of his own. His country's carmakers have invested successfully in the UK, he explained, and that success "of course is comprised with access to the European market". If that access is damaged, and profitability imperilled, then "no private company can continue operations - simple as that".

It keeps coming, the evidence that Brexit is a hot, sticky mess. It's ever clearer that ministers, from the top down, have no idea how to handle it. Today the EU negotiator Michel Barnier warned that the UK's constantly changing and contradictory demands - with no circle more unsquareable than Ireland - are putting the transition deal in doubt. And yet, in this week of Brexit horrors, the visiting Martian luckless enough to begin his earthly travels in the chamber of the House of Commons would have scarcely known any of it was happening.

VInce CableAt prime minister's questions, the most visible moment of scrutiny the government faces each week, Brexit - and the ineptitude, confusion and conflicting signals with which it is being pursued - barely got a mention. Jeremy Corbyn devoted his six questions instead to the subject of police numbers. Important, to be sure, and, last year's election campaign suggests, effective with voters. But it was yet another week when the leader of the opposition chose not to challenge the government on the matter that will shape this country's future for generations to come. The half-hour mark had passed when finally the Lib Dem leader, Vince Cable, raised it, extracting the revelation that May cannot even rule out a post-Brexit Britain allowing US corporations access to NHS contracts

This is what a democratic deficit looks like. There is a gap in our politics where full-throated opposition to the madness of Brexit should be. Easy to forget amid the solemn invocations of "the will of the people", but 48% of Britons voted to remain in the EU. So it is left to a party with just 12 MPs, along with the SNP, to speak for them.

If this were commerce, you'd call it a market failure, the system failing to meet a genuine need. And there's no better illustration than the folly of leaving the customs union, to light upon the most current neuralgic spot. That move was not on the ballot paper in June 2016; the phrase was barely uttered in the referendum campaign. While you can see, without agreeing to it, the logic that leads to demands to leave the single market - as the only way to control migration, for example - there is no such logic for leaving the customs union.

Hard Brexiteers say it's the only way for Britain to be free to strike deals with countries outside the EU. But that argument crumbles upon a moment's consideration. For who imagines that, sitting across a table in trade talks facing Donald Trump or Xi Jinping, Theresa May would be able to get a better deal than a representative of a bloc of 500 million consumers? It's obvious that Britain alone will have less clout and less leverage, and therefore extract worse terms, than it would as part of the EU.

Defenders say a post-Brexit UK will be able to conclude trade pacts more quickly, and more tailored to its specific needs, than it can as part of a one-size-fits-all EU; but those gains would surely be offset by the price it would pay for being a small island squaring up against the big beasts (to say nothing of the trade deals with 102 countries that it enjoys now as an EU member and that Britain will have to renegotiate from scratch). What's laughable is that those pushing to leave the customs union claim to be acting in the name of free trade - even as they turn their back on the largest, most successful free trade area in human history. The plain truth is that their motive is purely ideological, born of the fetishistic desire to be rid of anything that carries the taint of "Europe".

This much should be obvious, if not to the government then at least to the opposition. Labour is committed to staying in the customs union for the transition, but surely it should be able to say it would aim to stay in afterwards too. If it can't say that, then in what sense is it providing a meaningful alternative to a hard, self-harming Brexit?

The good news is that the Labour leadership has moved, steadily and in the right direction, since the early hours of 24 June 2016, when Jeremy Corbyn was first to demand the immediate triggering of article 50. He needs to move further still. The precipice is getting ever closer - and time is running out.

Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist