Britain’s prime minister has been remarkable in resolutely following a ruinous path that she keeps insisting remains the least perilous road to Brexit. Theresa May’s first crime against logic was to trigger Article 50 without a plan of what to do on 29 March 2019 if no deal had been struck with Brussels. Her second was to forfeit any bargaining power she had by accepting Michel Barnier’s two-phase negotiation (first London delivers all that Brussels demands, then Brussels considers what London wants).
May’s two colossal errors combined to allow a gloating European Commission to dictate to her a withdrawal agreement that, independently of whether one is pro-Leave or pro-Remain, resembles the kind of treaty imposed upon a nation defeated at war. Unsurprisingly, Brexit has turned into a process tearing Britain apart while revealing its constitutional inadequacies.
The prime minister will continue to run down the clock putting all the pressure on Remainers, both Tory and Labour, to avert a no-deal Brexit by accepting hers. That was the point of backing the Brady amendment on Tuesday: to take Brexit revocation off the table, gain two weeks during which to pretend to negotiate with a European Commission that does not have the mandate to negotiate and then take a version of the same withdrawal agreement, possibly with some pointless addenda, to parliament.
If her blackmail fails again, she will apply for an extension of Article 50 until 1 July to start the same war of attrition anew.
It is imperative that May is prevented from following this path. Those who can stop her and fail to do so will not be forgiven by at least one generation of Britons. Which brings me to my friend and comrade Jeremy Corbyn and his team. Labour’s leadership understands that, with weeks to go before the cliff’s edge, Niccolò Machiavelli’s counsel (see below) applies just as much to them too.
Until now it was right and proper for Labour to avoid distracting a Tory government while it was making a mess of things. Jeremy Corbyn’s critics were wrong to chastise him for delaying to call a vote of no confidence or for not backing a second referendum. Labour just did not have the numbers to win such votes.
However, the time has come for Jeremy Corbyn to give a Speech of Hope for Britain, one that contains a clear vision of a country that heals itself after two years of wanton destruction by a short-sighted, clueless prime minister thinking solely of the unity of her divided government and party.
Jeremy’s speech must build hope upon a foundation of realism, stating clearly what the Labour leader would do if he were to move into No 10 tomorrow morning. In such a speech I would like to hear him announce that, in view of the current damaging impasse, only a people’s debate can turn a disaster into an opportunity for national renewal. This debate should be modelled on the Irish citizens’ assembly that produced a remarkable convergence of public opinion on the nation’s abortion legislation before a referendum could be held profitably.
Jeremy Corbyn’s Speech of Hope must, of course, end with forward guidance on what he will do from the opposition benches in the next decisive weeks.
I would like to hear him say that he will not support any short-term extension of Article 50 that merely allows May more rope to hang herself and the country. And that he will support any amendment that prevents Britain crashing out – or back into the EU – without that utterly crucial democratic agent of a people’s debate and an honest referendum on the available options within the next two years.