I am going to be doing what some might describe as a monumentally stupid thing on 2nd May. I will be standing as a council candidate for the Conservatives in my local area.
Given the palpable fury in the country at the two main parties’ handling of Brexit, one can only imagine that doorstep conversations are going to be very interesting. I am fortunate in that my local electorate has its head firmly screwed on, and is quite capable of differentiating between local issues and national politics. Nonetheless, this election remains the first available chance that voters have to ‘punish’ both Labour and the Conservatives for the way that both have approached the most seismic change in our political landscape for many decades.
Arguably, it is the Conservatives who will be in the most danger, having been the party in power during the past few years’ negotiations with the EU and the subsequent parliamentary wranglings. The British electorate are a perceptive bunch; they can see through the blatant attempts to force through a Withdrawal Agreement that many voices have argued could actually be worse than continuing membership of the European Union. They have noted the sharp contrast between what the electorate asked for back in 2016 and the deal as laid before the House last week – practically nobody is impressed.
The Speaker may have blocked the Government’s attempt to table a third vote on the Prime Minister’s Withdrawal Agreement for now, but I would not take it as a given at this point that the matter has been fully and finally laid to rest. With that said, there is also a great fatigue among the nation’s voters when it comes to Brexit. Most seem to want us to ‘just get on with it’, and some among those are willing to hold their noses and put up with this Withdrawal Agreement if it gets us out of the EU for now – perhaps those doorstep conversations will be slightly easier!
Others remain more strident, demanding a full and complete exit – a ‘clean break’, if you will – at the end of this month, as we were promised over 100 times. While some have labelled this position ‘extreme’, when one actually stands back and considers the great lengths this Government had previously gone to in repeatedly emphasising the date of our departure, perhaps it is not.
For myself, as for many others, the Prime Minister’s deal has begun to look increasingly tempting, as the prospect of ‘no Brexit’ has loomed ever larger by the day – a Sword of Damocles held poised above the fragile hopes of a nation that expressed greater support for this course of action than for any Government it has ever had. In that original anecdote hailing from Ancient Greece, the name of the sword is actually somewhat of a misnomer, rather in the manner of the ‘Trojan’ horse (which, as one recalls, was arguably more of a Greek horse).
King Dionysius offers to switch places with Damocles, one of his courtiers, who had expressed admiration for luxuries of the King’s lifestyle, for a single day. However, he arranges for a large sword to be hung above the throne, held in place by a single hair of a horse’s tail, to symbolise the great burden that comes with leadership, and just how quickly – and brutally – it can be ended. In the end, Damocles is unable to stand the pressure and begs Dionysius’ leave to return to his former role early.
While on the face of it this might seem an apt analogy for the position our Prime Minister finds herself in, I find it even more fitting to describe the sorry state of affairs now presented to those who voted with passion to leave the European Union. There are many luxuries to be had in the great prize of returning our full sovereignty to these islands and shucking off the EU’s vice-like grip at one stroke. But alas, a ruler intent on coercing the people into believing that these indulgences may not be worth having has deliberately put a terrible prospect in place – the threat of ‘no Brexit’ – in an attempt to convince them to walk away from it voluntarily. The question for Brexiteers now is whether they can muster greater conviction than Damocles.
The main reason why I believe that we must is, in fact, very simple – it is revealed in the tactics that the European Union has deployed to deal with a Member State wishing to depart. The tactic that worked so well in getting Britain to this point with the current Withdrawal Agreement (albeit with the complicity of so many on this side of the Channel) was to agree the framework for departure prior to the future relationship, while – critically – having a set deadline in place for these negotiations.
At the end of that deadline loomed the prospect of an outcome that ‘nobody wanted’ – a no-deal Brexit. It was child’s play for the EU to continually refuse Britain’s proposals, while making its own that it knew we would find unpalatable (such as a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement that we refused because, by its very nature, it was inherently designed to exclude Northern Ireland). All the while, the clock was running down until we had no choice but to compromise on our own former red lines. By all accounts, this tactic was extremely successful.
So, then, the biggest issue I take with the format of the Prime Minister’s Withdrawal Agreement is that we will see the exact same tactic deployed against us once more – and, just as before, we will have agreed to it in advance. There will be a set deadline for the future relationship negotiations – although this time 21 months rather than 24 – and at the end of it will be an outcome that ‘nobody wants’: the backstop.
Given the ongoing connivance of some on this side of the water, who would do all they could to subvert the negotiating process and tilt the balance in the EU’s favour, I see no reason whatsoever why a tactic that worked so well before would fail to do so again. Any future relationship we would end up negotiating under these terms – with which we could then be stuck for the long haul – is highly likely to be unfavourable to us, vis à vis the leverage we could have deployed with a far more fairly-stacked deck. This, for me – above all other concerns – is something that we cannot and should not risk.
I therefore believe, along with many others, that now is the time for Brexiteers in the House of Commons to hold the line and firmly reject any further attempts to hold Brexit to ransom. There are, as some have said, ‘no good options’ in respect of how MPs should vote now – but such is life oftentimes. The spirit of the Leave vote has been, to my mind at least, largely about demonstrating that the people are ultimately sovereign. To allow our rulers – be they far-flung or indeed home-grown – to go about this great affair in a manner that runs contrary to that principle is truly when that spirit dies. We must not let it.
This is what I will be telling the electorate in my ward on the doorsteps, should they ask. I would encourage our current parliamentarians to imagine the conversations they will be having, should they choose to thwart the will of the people – be it this week or at any time in the future. Just as in the tale of Damocles, it would seem that their future, and the future of any functioning democracy in this country, now hangs by a single hair of a horse’s tail.
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