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A government of national unity is now the only way to stop a damaging Brexit

MPs in the House of Commons - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

To see the country though the Brexit impasse politicians must put country before party and establish a government of national unity, says Jonathan Chaplin.

The EU’s blunt rejection of the Chequers proposal on the future economic relationship at Salzburg should have taken no-one by surprise. Far from being an ‘ambush,’ it is wholly consistent with the EU’s unanimous and frequently repeated commitment to the integrity of the single market. Theresa May’s wounded defiance only reveals the depth of her misjudgement of the law, politics and culture of the EU.

So it is now even clearer that the government is dragging us shambolically towards one of three wholly unwelcome outcomes: a damaging hard Brexit, a perilous blind Brexit or a disastrous no deal.

But this welcome moment of clarity only further illuminates how fundamentally the parliamentary landscape is misaligned with the demands of the national interest. The government has run out of road, and if it survives until October it will have nothing new to offer. But parliament itself cannot currently assemble a majority behind anything better.

Tantalisingly, there may well be a latent majority behind a version of a soft Brexit that could command the support of anti-Brexit and soft-Brexit Tory and Labour MPs. But the persisting refusal of most of these MPs to break ranks with their party leaderships means that it cannot be mobilised. Even at this eleventh hour, the vast majority of such MPs insist on putting party before country. Lamentably, even Labour MPs desire a general election more than they hate a damaging Brexit. Most share Len McCluskey’s view that being ‘in or out of the EU matters less than getting the Tories out of office and Jeremy into number ten.’

At the most critical moment in our national history since 1945, the iron cage of blinkered partisanship still holds the overwhelming majority of Tory and Labour MPs in its unbending grip.

This is why the case for a People’s Vote has been gathering such momentum. But the obstacles to delivering it are formidable given the extremely tight deadline and the government’s absolute refusal to contemplate a deferral of the Article 50 process. Dare we allow the nation’s future to rest entirely on this highly uncertain prospect?

There is another way forward, floated by Anna Soubry in July but ignored or dismissed. MPs who reject any of the three damaging outcomes towards which we are recklessly stumbling must put country decisively before party and establish a government of national unity committed to negotiating some version of a soft Brexit. If such MPs refuse to think the unthinkable, they will be actively conspiring in outcomes they loudly proclaim will seriously damage the national interest.

Without a national government, the most that sympathetic MPs will be able to achieve is to reject or amend or delay whatever proposal the government must present to parliament at some point before 21st January. But this is an obstructive not a constructive power – parliament can block what the government comes up with but not impose an alternative of its own.

Attempting to establish a national government would involve high-stakes political drama. A vote of no confidence in the government would have to be orchestrated and an alternative government waiting in the wings. The initiative could easily fail, and if it succeeded it could cause enduring splits in both major parties. That is what putting country before party might mean.

All this would require the rapid emergence of leaders of exceptional skill, self-sacrifice and resilience. I can think of several, mostly not on the front benches. They must act now.

Such a draconian initiative could be justified as a temporary exigence in circumstances tantamount to a national emergency. Its sole aims would be to conclude the Withdrawal Agreement satisfactorily – which would mean legally underwriting the Irish backstop already agreed to by the government in March – and to negotiate a political declaration affirming a soft Brexit. Its establishment would need to be tied to a promise of fresh elections after either Brexit or the transition period. It could be presented convincingly as compatible with the referendum result, for a soft Brexit still amounts to ‘leaving’ the EU.

Or, the new government might seek an Article 50 extension in order to hold a second referendum on a range of options for the future relationship, including staying in. But if that proved impossible, a soft Brexit would be by far the most advantageous platform from which to rejoin the EU in the future (however distant).

Such a move would demand a rare display of national vision and cross-party bravery among MPs, virtues our sclerotic, adversarial party and electoral systems systematically work to suppress. But before waving it aside, anti-Brexit or soft-Brexit MPs should carefully contemplate the following entirely plausible chain of events.

The government persists with its doomed Chequers proposal. At the October summit, the EU27 formally rejects it, offering a political declaration proposing some variant of Canada-plus, together with a legally binding Irish backstop in the Withdrawal Agreement. This deal is suitably bigged up to make it look as unlike a complete British cave-in as possible – it will be a deal ‘without precedent’ – but subsequent negotiations will be set by its terms alone.

Theresa May’s position then becomes unsustainable. Either she resigns immediately, or she rejects the offer, ups sticks and boldly declares a no deal – only to be ditched speedily by her cabinet or Tory MPs as they stare down the barrel of a cocked no deal gun. Against a thumping soundtrack of parliamentary pandemonium and media hyperventilation, prime minister Hunt/Gove/Javid/Lidington secures the hastily cobbled-together new cabinet’s backing for the EU’s offer, declaring it, ashen-faced, the ‘best possible deal’ for Britain.

It is then presented to parliament. Labour and most of the smaller parties denounce it with righteous indignation. Amidst a torrent of splenetic bluster, almost all Tory MPs, faced with the prospect of either a precipitous no deal or a Corbyn government, nevertheless endorse it. Depending on how the backstop had been spun, the DUP also likely rejects it – unless bought off with another billion or five. The government scrapes home by relying on maverick Labour and other MPs, flanked by Tory MPs wheeled in on gurneys.

A calamitous no deal is avoided and planes fly on April Fool’s Day 2019. But an incorrigible party tribalism will have forced us into an entirely avoidable act of gratuitous national self-harm. In twenty-five years, MPs who could have acted to prevent Britain’s decline into the divided and diminished nation it will have become, will have to explain to their resentful grandchildren why they did not.

• Jonathan Chaplin is co-editor of God and the EU: Faith in the European Project (Routledge 2016).

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