Brexit could still happen. But for the first time the odds on it happening are no better than even.
A friend sent me a BBC Scotland video of Jay Lafferty, a Scottish comedian, summing up the Brexit situation almost three years after Britain voted to leave the European Union:
“So the way I understand it is that Parliament have said no to Theresa’s deal,” she says, referring to Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain. “And they’ve said no to no deal, but some of them said yes to no deal but no to Theresa’s deal, but not as many that said no to no deal and no to Theresa’s deal, but they don’t actually have a deal of their own, which is a big deal because without a deal then no deal is more likely to be the deal that’s dealt, and the people who want the deal can’t be dealing with that.”
Or, as Tom Baldwin, the director of communications for the People’s Vote campaign for a second referendum, put it to me: “The problem with Brexit is not Theresa May. The problem with Brexit is Brexit.”
Here we are. Brexit is not doable because it makes no sense, whatever the prime minister’s scattershot efforts or offers to resign. You can hoodwink people — but not if you give them three years to reflect on how they were hoodwinked before doing the deed the hoodwinking was about.
The British cannot actually go through with something that will lower their incomes, make them poorer, lose them jobs, drain investment, expose their market to trade deals over which they would have no say, and — just an afterthought — lead to the breakup of Britain.
They cannot even if President Trump calls the European Union “brutal” as he enfolds gentle Kim Jong-un of North Korea in a love embrace. To live is also to think again. That is what Britain is doing, confronted by its most important decision in decades.
The European Union’s extension of the exit deadline, originally set for March 29, until the end of October looks to me like the beginning of the end of Brexit. It may still happen, but for the first time the odds on it happening are not better than even.
The momentum is with the “Remain” camp. More than six million people have signed a petition in favor of staying in the union. A million people recently marched. Brexiteers are defecting. Nick Ferrari, an influential radio broadcaster, announced this month that he’d changed his mind. “Just bloody stay and we’ll move on to other things,” he said. “Enough is enough.”
The extension averted the over-the-cliff Brexit favored by Tory hard-liners whose absolutist demands have ensured May’s proposed “deal” (in reality a kick-the-can fudge) never had a chance. It opened up a six-month period of reflection during which all sorts of things could happen. Most are likely to be inimical to Brexit.
The cost of this madness is sinking in. As Martin Fletcher asked in The New Statesman: Does anyone seriously believe Britain would have opted to leave if they’d known the result would be a “country supplicant, mocked, humiliated and beset by strife?”
Britain will now almost certainly vote in the European Parliament election in May. The pro-European British electorate will show up in force, while the pro-Brexit electorate will be more inclined to sulk. A recent poll suggests the opposition Labor Party leads the Conservatives comfortably, but that support will erode if Labor in its manifesto does not back a second vote on European Union membership.
It will be hard to see a pro-Europe vote in the European Parliament as anything other than a gauge of changed British sentiment and grounds for a second referendum.
Meanwhile, May will keep trying to find a workable deal. Negotiation with Labor is her latest gambit. Labor wants a customs union with Europe as part of a soft Brexit, an idea that’s anathema to hard-line Tories. It’s also a bad deal in that it leaves Britain signing on to all European Union trade deals while no longer having any say over them.
The talks will probably founder. The Tories may try to throw out May in favor of a hard-liner like Boris Johnson. They may force a general election. Either way, they are looking wounded and weakened.
Peter Oborne, the former chief political commentator at The Daily Telegraph, has also changed his mind. In a much-noted piece, he recently wrote, “It has become clear to me, though I’ve been a strong Tory Brexiteer, that Britain’s departure from the E.U. will be as great a disaster for our country as the over-mighty unions were in the 1960s and 1970s.”
After a devastating analysis of the crippling economic effects of Brexit, Oborne turned to the breakup of Britain. “I failed to understand,” he wrote, “how the E.U. is part of the glue which holds us together in the United Kingdom.”
Scotland wants to remain in the union. Northern Ireland does not want a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, a member of the European Union. An open intra-Irish border was a cornerstone of the 21-year-old Good Friday peace agreement. Put bluntly, absent the European Union’s benign offsetting influence, internal tensions in the disunited kingdom would soon reach a breaking point.
This, too, has become clear. That round and riveting black hole, a place where everything vanishes like a dream, would be a good final resting place for Brexit.