There are some political issues that seem to recur eternally. I have observed politics long enough to have heard Crossrail being given the final go-ahead at least 15 times. Britain’s departure from the European Union is like that. We have been on the verge of leaving for what seems like half our adult lives. Every time we cross an official border another one looms. Even when all the papers are signed at the end of this year, the argument about Brexit will be replayed in each and every quarterly data report.
But if Brexit is fated never really to go away then it may never quite arrive either. The problem with the attempt to maintain the Remain case after Britain voted to leave in 2016 is that Brexit never quite crystallised into a moment. The Office for Budget Responsibility has calculated that, even in the event of a deal with the EU, Britain’s GDP will fall by 4 per cent. The irony of Brexit will be that a project designed to rid Britain of the irritant of EU-regulation will end in a torrent of form-filling and tedious customs declarations.
But unless the BBC’s Huw Edwards introduces news footage of a chain of lorries on the A2 or a panned shot of empty supermarket shelves after the supply chain collapses, Brexit will still never quite arrive. Cheerleaders for Brexit regularly say that the residual Remain arguments are like the boy who cried wolf. Catastrophe has been predicted time and again, and yet every day seems to pass without catastrophe ever arriving.
Yet this is a strange fairy tale to invoke given that the very point of the story of the boy who cried wolf is that, in the end, there is an actual wolf. Imagine a fairy tale in which a wolf emerges at the end, only very slowly and in instalments. It wouldn’t be much of a fairy tale, but then neither is Brexit.
The more egregious and instant economic damage of Brexit is likely to be contained by a shell of a deal agreed with the EU. The relevant cabinet ministers, with Michael Gove in the vanguard, have understood all along that leaving without a deal is, as Oliver Letwin once described rail privatisation, “somewhat sub-optimal”. There is not much talk about swashbuckling global Britain these days. The negotiation is a last-ditch defensive manoeuvre to shore up the car industry, manufacturing and financial services. Jeopardising shared security work would be stupid and a hard border in Ireland would be against everyone’s express interests, quite apart from what it would do to relations with the new president of the US.
Bear in mind that the catastrophists of the residual Remain crowd were adamant that no deal could be reached in the time available. When a deal is done they will, once again, have sounded shrill and hyperbolic. Brexit emptied so many serious political minds of their senses, on both sides of the argument. I expect nothing much from the Europhobic right of the Tory party. Their view of the world is a fantasy, which they will now indulge for a short time until they discover, like expatriates furious at the new rules, that there seems to be a wolf slowly coming into view.
The sovereignty-obsessives of the Tory party are, of course, the sponsors of Brexit. It was and remains their project. Yet they could not have got what they wanted without the inadvertent help from a Remain lobby that never worked out when to cut a deal. By holding out to the last for a second referendum that was always inconceivable, they broke Theresa May, a prime minister who was prepared to compromise, and helped open the path for one who wasn’t.
May’s withdrawal agreement was a poor document, but it was obvious at the time it was the best feasible outcome. Anyone who either voted against it, as the Labour Party did, or argued for doing so bears a fraction of the responsibility for Boris Johnson’s premiership.
It is time to lay this argument to rest and try to let Brexit be. If and when a deal comes before the House of Commons it would be an error, which is being pressed upon Labour by distinguished friends such as Alastair Campbell and Andrew Adonis, either to vote against or to abstain on the main vote. The case for abstaining, which Labour is doing on the lockdown rules, is that it postpones conflicts and commits you to nothing. That said, abstaining from the big issues of the day is not a tactic the official opposition can make a habit. It looks craven and that’s because it usually is. Surely, if you think the deal is wrong, the principled vote is against.
Or, take the tough call and vote in favour. A vote for a deal is not a belated vote in favour of Brexit and nor would it shift responsibility for what happens from the government. It is perfectly reasonable for Labour to argue that it would rather not be in this position but, given that we are, to take a deal over no deal.
The best position on Brexit after this week is not that it was right or wrong but that it was yesterday. Nobody thinks a vote in favour of a deal would magically return Brexit supporters to the Labour ranks. There is more to their disillusionment with Labour than that. But it absolutely would signal a desire to start thinking about how Britain can prosper outside the EU.
Then, in the months to come, when the wolf is at the door, Labour should resist the temptation to fight Brexit over again. Don’t seek vindication. Instead of saying to the people of Mansfield, “We did say you were idiots to vote for Brexit,” say, “This economy is a mess isn’t it; the government is a shambles.”
If the consequences ever finally arrive, let Brexit do its own work. Give up the fight. It should have been given up long ago by Remainers, when it was lost. Yet still it goes on.