Policy differences are normal in democratic politics but Brexit...
So Theresa May postponed the key vote on her Brexit deal because she knew it would be heavily defeated.
Whilst her move was unexpected the reason for it should come as no surprise for four reasons. First, this has been a minority Government since the 2017 General Election; propped up by the ten DUP MPs who definitely did not support the back stop arrangements built into the deal. A few Labour MPs, including Frank Field and Kate Hoey, backed a hard Brexit but too few to give May a victory.
Second, the Conservative, in Parliament and the country are deeply divided on the Brexit agenda. Its right wingers have consistently opposed Britain’s membership of the EU since Edward Heath took us in and harassed first John Major and then David Cameron to take us out again. They rejected Theresa May’s compromise deal because it would have still left us subject to some EU rules which they opposed.
Third, leaving the EU whilst still wanting frictionless trade with our largest market is a highly complex issue and Theresa May’s attempts to find a compromise solution that prevented the economic damage to our economy that the Bank of England predicted, was never going to be popular with the Europhobes who dismissed it as the Remainers’ ‘fear factor’.
Fourth, there has always been an implicit cross-party majority of MPs who either backed Remain in the 2016 referendum or recognised that nationalism does not fit comfortably in our increasingly globalised world. Such issues as climate change, immigration, international criminal networks and the threat in Europe from Russian expansionism are best handled by working closely with our neighbours.
What happens now will be shaped by that implicit cross-party majority. Last Wednesday they backed Dominic Grieve’s amendment to the Parliamentary procedure for handling the Brexit debate that gave MPs control if the Government was defeated last night. The purpose was to enable the cross-party majority to prevent a no-deal Brexit. That leaves them an opening to pursue one or the other of two options.
The first would be to go back to the EU, revoke Article 50 and cancel Brexit. The European Court of Justice has ruled that there is nothing in EU law to prevent us doing that but it would require our Parliament to repeal all the Brexit legislation. That option would not be popular with the half of the population who voted for Brexit in 2016.
The second option would be to seek to remain in the customs union by adopting the Norwegian model which would keep us in the European Economic Area, facilitating frictionless trade with the EU whilst not requiring free movement of labour. This would not be popular with the Leavers but there is a majority for it in the House of Commons.
Underlying all this is the much more challenging need to reconcile the majority who voted to leave in 2016 to not doing so. That will surely call for Theresa May to step aside for a new leader better gifted to healing the deep divisions but this task cannot be left to politicians alone because it is they who have brought us to this situation. As head of state the Queen is above party politics and might include the need for reconciliation in her Christmas address. The Archbishops and faith community leaders at all levels can also speak about and pray for national healing. Probably the most effective agents of reconciliation are ordinary Christians who both pray for national healing and seek to be reconcilers in their own communities and work places.
The media has a special responsibility in this. Many of them have used their newspapers and programmes to promote one side or other in the national debate. Some have done this with selective reporting and aggressive language. They would help the healing process if they stopped doing that in relation to this agenda and raised the profile of those working for reconciliation.