To paraphrase Sherlock Holmes: when you exclude the impossible, what remains, however improbable, is the answer.
The only way out of the Brexit impasse is a further referendum. At some point Parliament should recognise this, and if the tactics of how it is voted upon aren’t bungled, should agree it. But the sooner the better.
The Theresa May deal should not pass Parliament. It is a bad deal, a million miles away from what people were promised from Brexit; and a deal which Members of Parliament would never in a thousand years vote for if they were voting purely on its merits.
We are going to spend billions of pounds, hire legions of civil servants, have more years of distraction whilst the challenges of the country go unaddressed, to produce a deal which in the name of “taking back control” forfeits the control we have. And there are myriad complexities still to be confronted in everything from fishing to mobile telephony.
Meanwhile, a nation which was a byword for common sense and clarity of thinking has been relegated in the international arena to an object of bemused pity.
But if May’s Brexit deal should not pass; neither would the alternatives.
A significant block of MPs advocate the EEA solution, where we become like Norway. They’re right this minimises the economic damage (though it doesn’t fully resolve the Irish issue either). However, this suffers from the same fundamental design flaw as the May deal.
This is the big picture the political class has got to step back and see vividly.
Understandably, Theresa May sought to deliver the Brexit mandate in a way that was true to Brexit but acknowledged the Remain vote and did the least economic damage. But her strategy was never going to work for this reason.
For 45 years, Britain has been a member of the EU, and in that time a set of deep trading and investment relationships with Europe has come into being, and in recent years has spawned supply chains, financial services, interlocking commercial arrangements all of which depend on Britain being part of the single market and customs union of Europe.
The single market is a unique trading system with the objective of having one set of rules across national boundaries. Britain was the champion of the single market, urging this greater integration through successive governments.
However, the principal Leave case is that these rules are inconsistent with our sovereignty.
Therefore, if Brexit does not deliver freedom from those rules, for your true Brexiteer that isn’t Brexit.
On the other hand, if you break from those rules, you will have trading friction because you’re no longer part of the single market.
The May approach was destined always to fail because it attempted to negotiate the unnegotiable.
This was to stay in step with Europe’s rules while at the same time reserving the right to depart from them.
As I and others tried to tell the Government for two years, Europe was never going to agree to that. NEVER. Because though their trade with the UK is important, their trade between the other 27 countries, governed by this unique trading system, is more important.
It’s time to make common cause. We need unity after the Brexit division. It can only come through clarity. And the only route to clarity is through the people. It may seem improbable; but everything else is now impossible.”
The Irish question – as John Major and I explicitly warned during the referendum campaign and were roundly abused for our pains – is a subset of the bigger question. But its significance is heightened by it being part of the withdrawal agreement, not the future arrangements, and by the commitments to a frictionless Irish border and preservation of the Good Friday Agreement.
So here is the challenge, and there is no way round it.
You can do Brexit in a way that honours the mandate of Brexit, but that will mean breaking cleanly from the single market and customs union and it will cause – at least short term and arguably for much longer – real economic disruption.
Or you can stay.
But what is completely pointless is to do a Brexit in name only where we remain bound by the European rules, lose our say over them and have the very people who have led the charge for Brexit crying betrayal!
Seriously, who in their right minds, when they step back, would think that sensible?
There is no point to Brexit unless we do what those most agitating for it think is true Brexit. Otherwise who are we pleasing? Not us, and not them.
And because those who have sway over the Conservative Party are so passionate about Brexit, the May deal and variations of it aren’t going to end the argument but prolong it after March 2019.
I am no fan of referendums. In 2015, I made one intervention in the election campaign, arguing as to why a Europe referendum was a bad idea.
But we are where we are. The people need to tell us: in the light of all we now know, and two years of hideously complex and tangled negotiation, what do you want to do?
Do you want to go forward with Brexit – in which case it is true Brexit you will get with a Prime Minister who believes in it. Or do you want to stay in Europe, and I would hope with a new European offer to the British people.
Both sides would accept the outcome is final at least for a generation.
I for one, if we vote again for Brexit, would get behind it and do everything I could to make a success of a new future for Britain.
If we stay, we could turn our national attention back to the vast array of challenges we face, not least the accelerating technological revolution.
I make an appeal to the true Brexiteers. You can’t get what you want through this Parliament. You and I share the view: if leave, leave; if stay, stay. But not half-in half-out enduring perpetual purgatory.
It’s time to make common cause. We need unity after the Brexit division. It can only come through clarity. And the only route to clarity is through the people. It may seem improbable; but everything else is now impossible.