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A Multiple-Choice Brexit

A Multiple-Choice Brexit

Sunday, 23 December, 2018 - 07:45
John Micklethwait
John Micklethwait is editor-in-chief of Bloomberg News.
Britain is edging toward multiple-choice politics. This may not be a bad thing.

When you have a particularly doltish group of students, unable to pass even the simplest exam, one well-worn solution is the multiple-choice test. Confronted with four possible answers to a question, even the least smart student stands a sporting chance of getting it right. (It was certainly true with me and physics.)

The shambolic politics of Brexit now seem to be heading toward an exam with three or four answers to a question. It is unclear whether members of Parliament or the general public will be the examinee — probably both. Weirdly, this may be the least worst solution. With less than 100 days until Brexit, it is wrong for Theresa May to try to stop it.

First, some background. At a time when Westminster needs a Blackadder (the Machiavellian cynic played by Rowan Atkinson in the eponymous BBC series), it is stuck with a Baldrick — Blackadder’s useless sidekick who inevitably possesses a “cunning plan” that is either mad or beyond his ability to carry out. You could argue that the first Baldrick was Prime Minister David Cameron, whose cunning promise of a referendum helped him win a slender majority in the 2015 election — but also enabled Brexit, which he did not want, to happen. The next was Boris Johnson. His last-minute decision in 2016 to join the Leave campaign was a tactical wheeze to win support with the Brexit-obsessed Tory faithful, positioning him to succeed Cameron. Yet when Leave unexpectedly won, Johnson had no clue what to do next; in the chaos he helped cause, the Tories gave May the top job.

May was supposed to be a safe pair of hands, but she too had a cunning plan. She called a snap election in 2017 with the aim of giving herself a large Tory majority that would bolster her Brexit negotiations with the European Union. Instead, her ham-fisted campaign caused her to lose her slim majority, forcing her to rely in Parliament on the Democratic Unionists from Northern Ireland (the least flexible group of Britons on the issue of the Irish border).

Indeed, throughout her negotiations with Europe, May has proved herself more Baldrick than Blackadder, throwing away the few good cards she had. She declared Article 50 too early, setting a clock running against her: Britain is now due to leave on March 29, deal or no deal. And she made virtually no preparations for the “no deal” she kept telling Britons was “better than a bad deal.” The Europeans, knowing that “no deal” would in fact grievously hurt the British economy, smiled and waited until May, running out of time, gave in. She now has to hawk a Brexit deal with a lengthy transition period and with an especially poisonous (and possibly indefinite) Irish “backstop.”

You would imagine that British politicians would have had enough of cunning plans by now. However, two new Baldricks have appeared, both bent on destroying May, but whose cackhandedness has helped her live on.

The least cunning assassins are the hardline Tory Brexiteers, led by Jacob Rees-Mogg. They are zealots, who would prefer no deal, despite the damage it would do to the economy. As an example of their handiwork, recall that a week ago May looked doomed. She had been forced to postpone the parliamentary vote on her compromise plan, and she was about to head off to Brussels to beg EU leaders for concessions they were never going to give. What did the Brexiteers do? They cluelessly triggered a rapid leadership election. In the end, 117 out of 317 Tory MPs voted against May; enough to hurt her but not enough to win.

Under the Tory party rules, May is now safe from a leadership election for another year. Had Rees-Mogg and friends waited even a few days for her to return empty-handed from Brussels (as she did), they might well have ousted her. Now Brexit will be run by a premier they don’t trust.

The other Baldrick is Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. His Brexit plan is so cunning that it is invisible. He has never unveiled it and possibly does not actually know what it is. You could argue that his ignorance, feigned or real, makes sense so long as the Tories keep forming circular firing squads. Eventually, though, Corbyn is going to want to bring down the government and force a general election — and he has nothing to offer the British people other than more division. Although many Labour MPs and constituents want another referendum, Corbyn does not.


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