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05 April 2019

A SOFT Brexit with a confirmatory referendum: if the voting in the Commons on Monday meant anything — and it takes an effort to extract meaning from the chaotic proceedings of the past few weeks — this combination of options has the greatest possibility of securing a parliamentary majority in the days ahead, if a way could be found to attach the two prospects together. None of the options in the indicative ballot gained a majority individually, but the customs union (273 for, 276 against) and the confirmatory public vote (280 for, 292 against) came closest. A potential convergence of this sort will, however, take time to agree, and much more time to implement. If the Prime Minister and the leader of the Opposition act true to form, there is little likelihood of their being able to agree a single programme to take to the European Council meeting next week. At best, there will be an agreed range of options for further debate. Consequently, Mrs May’s request for the shortest possible extension of the Article 50 process should not expect a favourable reception. Of course, there is one simple way to regain control of the Brexit timetable, which is to revoke Article 50; but to carry this off would require a stronger Prime Minister and a more united governing party.

All in all, despite the confident tone of Mrs May’s statement after the Cabinet meeting on Tuesday, her policy seems to be to retreat in the tiniest steps possible, in the continued hope that she can glean more support somewhere for her own plans, which she continues to term “the Brexit that the British people voted for”. This phrase, part of her limited Brexit lexicon, continues to irritate on two counts. First, the use of the definite article: there was no particular Brexit that people voted for. Second, it was only 51.9 per cent of the British people. Supporters of Brexit only ever mention the number of Leave votes, never the percentage. Critics of a second referendum argue correctly that a slim majority the other way will do nothing to heal the country’s divisions. But that is to see the second referendum mistakenly as a rerun of the first. The point is to present to the public a detailed and plausible Brexit, when and if that can be achieved, and let them confirm that they are happy with it and its consequences.

One unexpected outcome of this process has been the impressive stance of the Europeans. However bemused and irritated they may be, there has been a genuine attempt to allow the UK to do what it wants. Individual countries are, understandably, willing to pick up business that the UK seems to want to discard, but collectively they have behaved well, especially when compared with the British Government. The country’s fate depends on their continuing in that vein next week.

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