On Tuesday night, the House of Commons handed a resounding defeat to Prime Minister May’s Brexit deal, voting it down 432 votes against 202. The defeat, by a staggering 230 votes, is the largest ever suffered by a British government in the modern era, and it had the dubious honor of bringing together rebel Conservatives dissatisfied with the proposed deal (for not sufficiently delivering on the Brexit promises) and Labour remainers who believe the entire Brexit process to be a disaster. This seemingly unnatural communion actually reflects the difficulties lying ahead in the road towards the March 29 deadline, marking the moment in which the UK will officially leave the EU: although there is widespread agreement among members of parliament (MPs) about what they don’t want, there is no such agreement about what they do want. The crux of the situation was perhaps best captured by Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, in a speech before the European Parliament on the day after the vote: “Objectively speaking, this vote is not a clear manifestation of a positive majority which would define an alternative project, and an alternative to the proposal on the table today.”
This reality is particularly stark insofar as it moves Britain ever closer to the one outcome that almost nobody wants: a no-deal Brexit. No-deal has been rightly depicted as a worst-case scenario, as it would see the UK storming out without any kind of system in place for its future interaction with Europe, thereby becoming just another third country vis-à-vis the EU, but one whose infrastructure is not prepared to cope with a customs border between it and its main trading partner. Unfortunately, however, no-deal happens to be the default rule if, well, no deal is reached by the time the March 29 deadline arrives. And EU representatives have repeatedly emphasized that the deal presented to Parliament by Ms. May is the only viable deal, already incorporating as many concessions as they can possibly include. Therefore, the expectation on the part of some hard-Brexiter MPs that after Tuesday’s vote the Prime Minister should simply go back to Brussels and get a better deal—specifically, one without the now famous “Irish backstop”—is simply unrealistic. More than that, it is delusional.
In light of that reality, it would seem to make sense for Ms. May to start to look for a different kind of consensus, one that seeks to bring Labour MPs hoping for a soft Brexit together with moderate Tories who may be willing to give up on some of the unrealistic demands of hard-Brexiters. Unfortunately, she has taken the opposite path: while promising to seek cross-party support, she has already ruled out the possibility of a customs union or a second referendum, thus entrenching herself in the same red lines that led to her unprecedented parliamentary defeat. Given that these two are precisely the alternative demands of soft-Brexiters and remainers, the call for cross-party talks is largely an empty one, as it rules out the participation of liberal MPs. This leaves her, once again, with only the more radical and intransigent Brexiters within her own party as her interlocutors, which means that the possibility of any alternative deal with the EU for which she may garner enough backing remains as distant as ever. Perhaps her hope is that, in the midst of the ensuing deadlock—with her political supporters agreeing only to demands that that the EU would never acquiesce to—, the impending reality of a no-deal Brexit will force most MPs to change their minds at the last minute and accept her deal as the lesser evil. But, if that is in fact her hope, it is an irresponsible one, one that rests on putting the nation’s future at stake for the sake of her own political pride. Indeed, the politics that have surrounded Brexit thus far give little reassurance that the possibility of nefarious consequences for the country will actually drive Conservative politicians to make the responsible choice. On the contrary, opportunist figures like Boris Johnson are likely to hail no-deal as a more welcome outcome than “vassalage” to the EU, putting all of their deceitful demagoguery on display in a bid to obtain the Prime Ministership during the ensuing chaos.
In the face of the impossibility of compromise over a reasonable Brexit, then, it would seem that the best alternative to the self-inflicted wounds of no-deal would be to convene a new referendum and let voters decide whether they want to move ahead with the madness. Ms. May’s arguments against the second referendum, that it would be a betrayal of democracy and that it would undermine the trust of British citizens in their institutions, are simply misplaced. The referendum would not be a re-do of the 2016 vote, asking voters to change their minds: it would be a new question on a new subject; namely, whether in light of the current reality surrounding the implementation of Brexit (something about which citizens could not have had the necessary information before the process begun), voters would prefer to go ahead with a no-deal, to endorse May’s own deal, or to remain within the EU. In addition, absent some constitutional constraint that may serve the purpose of facilitating democratic governance, there is no normatively compelling reason why the will of voters some years ago should be any more authoritative than the will of voters today, especially when we consider the reality of changing demographics and of a changed political context. Therefore, it may be better for Ms. May to give up on her red lines and open up the possibilities of a softer Brexit, or of a second referendum if that does not work. There is simply too much at stake, and if through her intransigence the Prime Minister leads the country into the disaster of a no-deal, the responsibility will rest squarely on her shoulders.