Monday’s rejection of soft Brexit options means that the UK Parliament has only now voted a majority for no-deal. This means an extension is now likely.

In 2016, David Cameron blew his own Brexit referendum. Three years later and it looks like ‘Brexiters’ are risking doing the same with their triumph.  And it will not be the first time; it is a thirty-year story of failure. But it is not too late to do it properly – and I would start with abandoning Article 50 altogether.

1988 Unleashing 30 years of Brexit failure

Brexiters have spent years undermining their own best opportunities of leaving the EU. Probably the most important slip-up was in 1988. Following a call by the President of the European Commission, Jacques Delors, for more European social cohesion, Margaret Thatcher made her seminal speech on European relations in the Belgian town of Bruges. Reading the text, it is clearly a pro-European speech about containing the reach of the European social cohesion project.

But Brexiters misinterpreted it as a call to retreat – not attack, as Thatcher had intended. They then became obsessed for the next thirty years by Brussels whilst the rest of the country worried about negative equity, Iraq, financial crises, schools, knife crime and foodbanks. It made them irrelevant to political debate and side lined in elections for decades under William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard. Brexiters made Blair’s march towards European integration all too easy.

Mar 2017 – Triggering Article 50 2-year exit clause

Having finally won a majority in the House of Commons in 2015 after twenty years, Brexiters obtained and won their cherished referendum. But they then handed the whip hand to the EU by triggering the 2-year exit clock of Article 50 in March 2017. This was always biased towards the EU, enabling it to hold firm on resolving the Northern Ireland question before progressing to the future trade agreement talks. Since the Brexiters had no viable strategy to provide a successful outcome it made a no-deal or Remain inevitable. And Parliament was never going to accept the catastrophic effects of the former. Brexiters cast their own failure two years ago.

Jun 2017 – General Election

Calling the General Election to secure a strong Brexit majority seemed clever politics with the huge poll lead at the time. But the whole campaign was botched – remember the ‘Dementia Tax’ (I say that without irony)? It also closed off government for two months just when Brexit negotiating strategy should have been in full swing. The result was a coalition deal with the DUP that has made any Brexit near impossible.

Brexiters couldn’t have tried harder to sink their own cause. All of these missteps have been exaggerated by a habit of not changing direction when things were not going to plan. The result is Remain parliamentarians have now been given the opportunity to seize back the initiative and popularise a soft Brexit or even a 2nd referendum as a less disastrous alternative.

Apr 2019 – Brexit can still be saved

Brexiters are losing; but Brexit is not yet lost. Leavers need to come up with a path that avoids an exit on bad terms or one without any terms at all if they are not to squander their opportunity. This means overcoming: the Northern Ireland problem; the Article 50 mechanism stacked in the EU’s favour; and an EU negotiator in a league way above that of the UK.

Here is how I would Brexit from this point:

  • The Article 50 clock needs to be stopped. It would be easy for Brexiters to put the blame on the EU or ‘Remoaners’, accusing them of abusing the mechanism to block Brexit.
  • Brexiters should then abandon Article 50 altogether as an escape mechanism. Following last December’s European Court of Justice ruling, the UK is fully entitled to unilaterally revoke Article 50.
  • Instead, Brexiters should revert to the old mechanism of exit by treaty negotiations. This would enable a fairer environment for the UK, and allow Brexiters to better exploit some of the UK’s undoubtable powerful trade surplus leverage over the EU to improve on the appalling deal proposed within the existing Withdrawal Agreement.
  • This route would also keep the UK’s seat at the EU Council whilst going through exactly the same negotiations and time scale as envisaged with the current Withdrawal Agreement.
  • They should formulate an acceptable negotiating position, and win a proper majority of support, by establishing a consultation mechanism Parliament, the public and the devolved governments.
  • The Civil Service can have time to carry out the Brexit sector impact reports properly, so all sides could answer for the impacts of their views and proposals.
  • From this, a sensible and UK-friendly Brexit position can be put forward to the EU, and the UK can negotiate with time on its hands.

Will Brexiters adopt such a bold about-face? It would require a big change in character which flies in the face of thirty years of misjudgements.  But that is poor political leadership rather than an unfair legal bind which is where they are in danger of losing now.

If Brexit is lost, it will be the Brexiters’ fault. Again.

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