Until now, the only thing that has linked me to Jacob Rees-Mogg is that his auntie was once my mum’s lodger.
But now we share something else. Like him, I have changed my mind over Brexit. Unlike him, however, I have not belatedly come to see the virtues of the EU withdrawal deal negotiated by Theresa May.
No. Having been unpersuaded until now that another referendum would be the best way to resolve the UK’s Brexit agony, I have now reluctantly come to the view that there is no other solution. I have concluded, in the words of the old slogan from my student days, that politics is too important to leave to the politicians.
I remain a firm believer in parliamentary democracy. I also remain deeply suspicious of one-off referendums, particularly those with no minimum threshold for an affirmative vote. (Was there really no one in David Cameron’s entourage who reminded him of the Scottish devolution referendum of 1979, when the law stipulated that unless at least forty per cent of the registered electorate voted Yes, devolution would not go ahead? In the 2016 Brexit referendum, only thirty-seven per cent of the electorate voted Leave.)
But if parliament is unable to make a decision, then someone else has to. And in extremis, it will have to be the electorate again. In theory, I would prefer voters to have their say in a general election – and there were murmurings at Westminster last night that a snap election might be Mrs May’s next cunning plan -- but with both main parties incapable of uniting around a coherent position on Brexit, an election is unlikely to make things any better. (If you’re of a betting disposition, a modest flutter on 23 May, the date of the European parliament elections, might be fun.)
Interestingly, it looks as if MPs might also be warming to the idea of another referendum. If we learned anything at all from the so-called ‘indicative votes’ circus on Wednesday evening, it is that more MPs support the idea of another referendum than any of the other seven options presented to them. There were also more pro-referendum votes than there had been for the government’s proposed withdrawal agreement when MPs voted on 12 March.
But it’s important to be clear: the ‘confirmatory referendum’ idea is based on the assumption that parliament will, eventually, approve the withdrawal deal – the referendum would then be to gauge whether or not voters approve of it as well. What happens if parliament fails to approve it? No deal, no referendum.
And here’s the rub: I still see no chance that the deal – not even one part of it -- will be passed. Not later today, not on Monday, not ever. The DUP is still only happy when it can say No, and Labour isn’t going to vote for a deal that could immediately lead to Mrs May stepping down and Boris Johnson or Michael Gove taking over as prime minister.
I’m not going to even try to speculate about what happens next. In the laconic words of a ‘government source’ quoted yesterday morning by the BBC’s estimable assistant political editor Norman Smith: ‘The options are not obvious.’
Oh, Sir Humphrey, of Yes, Minister, where are you, now that we need you in our darkest hour?
Whatever happens over the coming days, our political system will take years to recover. Because remember: this was meant to be the easy part. Nothing that has been negotiated so far even begins to answer the question ‘So what kind of trading relationship will the UK have with the EU in future?’ Given the importance of the EU to the UK’s prosperity – which means jobs, public services and economic growth – it’s not exactly inconsequential.
The truth is that our system of government has comprehensively failed us. It has even failed the arch-Brexiteers who set this whole wretched business in motion. Here, for example, is the Conservative MP, Steve Baker, a Brexiteer even more committed than Jacob Rees-Mogg: ‘I’m consumed with a ferocious rage. I could tear this place down and bulldoze it into the river.’
This kind of talk is both grossly irresponsible and incendiary, because if democracy fails, what takes its place? History is not exactly encouraging, and we are in desperate need of political leaders who can begin both to rebuild our faith in parliament and to start work on creating a better system. As Gary Younge puts it in today’s Guardian: ‘We have a party that is not fit to govern, leading a parliament that is not able to legislate, elected by a system that is not fit for purpose.’
Theresa May has boxed herself into the utterly absurd position of being committed to resigning if she wins approval for her deal, but staying in office if she fails. Whoever replaces her is likely to be a far more enthusiastic Brexiteer than she ever was, heralding the prospect of an ever-worsening crisis.
Far better, I am now persuaded, to throw the question back into the lap of the electorate. Is this what you voted for? Are you sure? If they say Yes again, so be it. And if this time they say No, we can begin to rebuild both our politics and our nation.
But even if the UK does not leave the EU, things will never be the same again. We were never the most popular member of the bloc – and it will take many, many years to regain any of the esteem or trust in which we once might have been held. Let’s be honest: who’s going to take us seriously after the total balls-up of the past three years?
I have lost count of how many words I have written about Brexit since June 2016. Exactly two years ago, immediately after Theresa May wrote her ill-fated letter triggering the Article 50 withdrawal process, I wrote that the sadness I had felt after the referendum had now turned to deep anger ‘at the hypocrisy, dishonesty and sheer political cowardice that has characterised the response to the referendum result of both major parties … We have become a shrunken nation led by shrunken politicians.’
Since then, a handful of MPs have done what they could to prove me wrong. Among them are Oliver Letwin, Yvette Cooper, Nick Boles, Dominic Grieve, Hilary Benn and Lucy Powell, all of whom have striven mightily to rescue something from the turmoil. One day, who knows, they may be deemed to have earned a place in the pantheon of parliamentarians who made a difference.
I just hope their efforts weren’t too little, and too late.