Anger, Appeals, and Article 50: Only a General Election can solve the Brexit dilemma

Yesterday’s news that the government will require Parliamentary consent to trigger Article 50 has prompted angry responses from apoplectic Brexiteers. Though the Leave campaign promised to reassert parliamentary sovereignty, prominent politicians including David Davis and Nigel Farage have criticised the ruling whilst the government have vowed to appeal. As the battle over Britain’s exit deal rages on, the prospect of an early election has resurfaced. Indeed, there is an increasingly strong case that only a general election can solve the Brexit dilemma.

In June’s referendum, Britain voted narrowly but conclusively to leave the EU. Many Remain campaigners have been at pains to point out however that the referendum result does not clarify what kind of Brexit the British people want. Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has led calls for a second referendum once the terms of Britain’s exit have been negotiated. This approach has several flaws, most notably that it would be perceived by many as whinging ‘Remoaners’ trying to subvert democracy. To determine fairly what Brexit should look like, we need a broader debate.

Britain’s future relationship with Europe cannot be reduced to a binary choice. Though hard and soft Brexit have become buzz-phrases in Westminster lately, they do not articulate the complexity of UK-EU divorce proceedings. For most people a hard Brexit would mean leaving the single market, ending free movement and severing any other ties with the EU. Such a deal, supported by UKIP and many Leave-voting Tories, would undoubtedly be the simplest. It would also be the most catastrophic in economic and social terms. Some see soft Brexit as not really leaving the EU at all; retaining free movement and single market access with at least the illusion of some repatriation of powers. A deal along these lines would justifiably anger the 52% of the public who voted Leave in June.

In reality however, neither of these options are on the table. The government is clumsily attempting to carve out a best-of-both-worlds scenario whilst Labour (unsurprisingly) are struggling to agree on a position. What both parties have demonstrated is that the terms of Brexit are not black and white. Labour moderates have called for maximum access to the single market with an end to free movement; International Trade Secretary Liam Fox has called for a ‘clean break’ from all EU institutions; and the Prime Minister is vaguely advocating ‘the best possible deal’.

A general election gives the public an opportunity to decide which of the many variations of Brexit they want. Each party’s manifesto would necessarily be focussed on their negotiating position, or red lines for Brexit talks, allowing the electorate to choose what trade, immigration, and spending policies the UK should adopt after leaving the EU. Unlike a second referendum, a ‘Brexit election’ cannot be construed as an attempt to ignore the result of June’s vote and keep Britain in the EU. Although parties such as the Lib Dems might choose to campaign on such a platform, most parties – including Labour and the Tories – would take the opportunity to lay out their visions for Brexit Britain.

The Fixed-term Parliaments Act is but a small hurdle to overcome if Theresa May recognises the need for an early election. With a steadily decreasing majority (two Tory MPs have resigned in the past week) and no mandate for many of her polices – Heathrow expansion, new grammar schools – not to mention the disquiet on her own backbenches, the PM’s hand may be forced. Yesterday’s High Court ruling has forced the government to rethink their strategy, it may also have persuaded Mrs May that a ‘Brexit election’ is the only way forward.

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