Politics is the art of compromise, isn’t it? The EU gave us a good example last night, splitting the difference between the long extension of Article 50 sought by most of its members and the much shorter one demanded by President Macron. But in the UK Parliament compromise seems to be the hardest word. And the result, it is now clear, threatens to leave the UK in European limbo not just till the new October deadline, but indefinitely.
Theresa May’s deal is of course one compromise MPs have failed to vote for. It is somewhere between a hard and soft Brexit. (Future historians will surely gasp at the unwillingness of the hardline Brexiteers to vote for it, so incapable of compromising that they were actually thwarting their own cherished goal of leaving the EU.)
But it was in the series of indicative votes that followed the second defeat of May’s deal that the inability to compromise of many other MPs too was revealed. This was the perfect opportunity to accept that one’s first-best option could not be achieved, so to plump for a second-best one. MPs could vote for more than one, and the votes were not binding. But even then not enough MPs could bring themselves to do so. Yes, some options (the customs union deal and a second referendum) were only narrowly defeated. But don’t be fooled: neither got more than 280 votes, which is nowhere near the effective parliamentary majority (320) required to actually get legislation through.
Throughout the last few months, Theresa May’s strategy has been to present her deal as the only alternative to some even worse outcome. Originally that was no deal; then it was an extension of Article 50. Now it is participation in the EU elections. Irresponsible though it looked as the clock ran down, it did seem like the only way of getting MPs to compromise. But the first two didn’t work, and there is little reason to believe the latest attempted jeopardy will either. Too many MPs just will not give up on their first-best option, whatever the risk.
So where does this leave us? The answer is quite possibly in permanent stalemate. It is now quite likely that, over the next few months, Parliament will consistently refuse to pass any of the available options for resolving the crisis. To remind ourselves, there are six of these: May’s deal, another deal, no deal, a referendum, a general election, and revocation of Article 50. Each of these has already been defeated in Parliament, and it would require a significant shift of votes to change that now.
Note that two of these would in normal circumstances look like the obvious ways out. A general election and a referendum would both be acknowledgements that Parliament was deadlocked and therefore the decision should go back to the public. Some commentators are claiming for this reason that a referendum is now the most likely outcome, since most Tory MPs will regard it as preferable to a general election. The logic is impeccable. But it founders on the rock of non-compromise. It may be the only solution. But that does not mean a majority of MPs will vote for it.
What would happen in the event that Parliament couldn’t agree on anything at all, even as the new October deadline approached? We would be back in the EU’s hands. It might be that by then preparations for a no-deal outcome were so advanced that member states felt they could withstand the pain and vote for it. But to do so would mean the reintroduction of a hard border in Ireland, and therefore to abandon Ireland’s interests, to which they have cleaved for so long. Macron notwithstanding, it is not at all clear that the EU would be prepared to do this. So we would be given another long extension, and the UK’s limbo condition – still in the EU, still intending to leave but unable to do so, half-in, half-out – continuing indefinitely.
For students of politics this is a remarkable state of affairs. Compromise is so embedded in our theories of politics, and in its practice, that utter stalemate is rarely contemplated. Of course governments and parliaments often reject potential courses of action. But that simply leads to a continuation of the status quo, and politics moves on. The peculiar circumstances of Brexit leave us now in a world we had barely thought possible.