Britain’s struggle over Brexit resembles the popular image of trench warfare on the Western Front in the First World War. Huge amounts of effort are expended, after which nothing much seems to have changed. Last night’s further postponement of the leaving date left me with that feeling. None of the possible endings seems any closer: Brexit with a deal, Brexit without a deal, or revocation with or without a further referendum. It doesn’t even look as if Theresa May, the Prime Minister, will resign to give somebody else a chance.
As with trench warfare, however, the important changes are less visible, and have to do with the stamina of the combatants. Optimists urge their side to keep going as the enemy is about to crack; pessimists see the strains on their own side, and assume that the other side is in a better state. But nobody really knows who will crack first.
And the strains are clearly showing on all sides. Within the Remain camp there were some Liberal Democrats, reportedly including the MP Norman Lamb, who were angry that a number of Lib Dem MPs voted (decisively) to oppose the customs union proposal in parliament’s recent indicative votes. Now, they say, is the time to reach out for a compromise and end the stalemate that is stopping progress on so many other parts of public life, as well as blighting businesses. Reportedly Norman said that the Lib Dems were no better that the Tory Brexit extremists of the European Research Group.
On the Brexit side there is the public recantation of influential journalist Peter Oborne. He now says that Brexit is much harder than he thought and really not such a good idea after all. Just before last night’s summit Mrs May talked of moving on to Britain’s brighter future outside the EU. There was no more conviction to this that her mantra that “no deal is better than a bad deal”. Her actions speak otherwise, unless she also thinks that staying in is better than no deal. Only a tiny band of die-hards can actually think that life would be better outside the EU. Most Brexiteers either feel strongly that the 2016 referendum result, with its high turnout from previously apathetic voters, should be respected, or else they simply want to move on. And, of course, accepting Brexit with a deal (which would have to be close to the one Mrs May has already agreed) is by far the easiest way to move on.
The people that look most defeated by this latest episode are the no-deal Brexiteers. They have a lot of poll support, but only about 100 MPs. Most people who look into the idea quickly drop it. Clearly the scare stories are not all the usual hype. The plan of the no-dealers was to get their way by default – but neither the government nor the EU are playing along with this. All intensely dislike the prospect of a no-deal. But the no-dealers aren’t defeated. Their best chance lies in changing the Conservative Party leadership to a hard Brexiteer like Boris Johnson, and hoping that he or she doesn’t wobble. Their other big hope is that the EU will throw Britain out, as is now in their power. This is close to the French president Emmanuel Macron’s public position, doubtless following French public opinion. Britain’s ambiguous status will do progressively more damage to EU institutions as it persists – and some EU leaders are starting to realise that a badly divided United Kingdom would not be an asset to the Union. So the no-dealers won’t give up yet.
The Remainers, who are ultimately looking for a revocation of Brexit, continue to hope too. They have suffered reverse after reverse, but they sense that the public mood is relentlessly creeping their way. Their biggest problem is that the Conservatives have firmly shut them out, and the Labour leadership is opposed too. Of the two, Labour’s resistance is clearly the weaker, since most Labour members and voters are Remainers. And yet the longish delay could force both parties to concede a referendum to break the deadlock, and that is all the opening Remainers are asking for.
Meanwhile those advocating the current deal on offer, or at least the legally binding Withdrawal Agreement part of it, are tantalisingly close to victory, like the Germans in April 1918 in World War One. All it now requires is for the talks between the Labour and Tory leaders to reach a compromise wording around the idea of a customs union and then to recommend that to their respective MPs. That should be enough. Or something similar might be achieved by a move led by backbench MPs. But the political rewards for such public spiritedness look meagre in Britain’s toxic politics.
What will happen? I find it impossible to predict and I don’t even know what I want. Each of the three possible outcomes looks pretty bad. Staunch Remainer as I am – and I would vote to revoke if given an opportunity – I do not relish the prospect of living in a country haunted by a stab-in-the-back myth, which can be trotted out to explain anything bad. Even if Revoke wins in a new referendum, it is hardly likely to amass the 17.4 million votes that Leave did in 2016, as turnout is likely to be low. I am tempted by the idea that we need to take one step back before taking two or even three steps forward.
Meanwhile it is hard not to be depressed.