For those who believe, as this newspaper does, that the decision to leave the EU is a calamity for the UK that also risks the stability and prosperity of our European neighbours, there is a bleak week ahead. After the nine long, angry and confused months since last June’s referendum, it is now all but certain that the legislation to trigger article 50 will pass, unaltered, by Tuesday. Brussels is primed to receive Britain’s formal notice of intent to quit this week, just as the celebrations to mark the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome begin. There will be no retreat.
The fact of leaving cannot be changed. But both the way we leave and its consequences are all still very much in play. To talk, as all sides now do, of the best possible outcome is first and foremost to talk of the nature of the deal itself. It is about how the question of Northern Ireland’s border with the south is resolved, about the extent of limits to free movement, the rights of Britons living abroad and of EU citizens living here. It is about the possibility of access to the single market and the nature of a tariff regime. It is hard, multidimensional, uncharted territory that will depend a great deal on a negotiating team still being assembled and on personal relations with her peers that the prime minister, Theresa May, has had to start to build in the least promising of circumstances.
In these negotiations with Brussels and our 27 ex-partners, the government is supplicant, our fate in their hands. At home, however, it is the government that controls the agenda. Nothing it has done so far suggests it will use its power in a way that promotes the essential task of healing the divisive consequences of the referendum, or enhances the legitimacy of the final outcome.
At every turn, the government’s actions have undermined parliament, first by trying to exclude it entirely from the process, now by overriding its attempt to insist on its right to have a meaningful say in the final outcome of a negotiation that will profoundly affect the wellbeing of each and every voter. The government belittles its critics and where it can – see Lord Heseltine last week – it sacks them. This morning the Brexit minister David Davis, whose trademark is the jovially delivered threat, used a TV interview to try to intimidate potentially rebellious colleagues who might be planning to vote to keep in the two amendments peers passed to the Brexit bill. It is a sign of what can most kindly be described as government muddle that a politician like Mr Davis, with a long record of fighting in parliament’s defence, is now dismissing the proper exercise of its power as a kind of threat to democracy. But this is not mere personal idiosyncrasy. Every move so far in the Brexit process is marked by a disrespect for institutional authority that sets a damaging precedent in the wider context of the rising tide of populism. A wiser government – certainly one that was forced to pay more attention to parliament by a popular opposition – would treat its critics with all the elaborate respect demanded by constitutional convention.
Mrs May’s approach to parliament is shaped by her decision to treat delivering on Brexit as her mandate. That explains her claim to be ready to leave the EU even if there is no deal. It explains her refusal to allow the Brexit legislation to be amended to allow for a vote on a deal, despite pledging a vote in her big policy speech on Europe in January. And it is why her ministers are adamant that if there is no deal, there can be no vote. Parliamentary intervention in a move that would see Britain abandon its most important economic relationship is to be blocked.
This is only partly a matter of process. It is also a question of substance. It is a concession to the ultra right in her party and her government who refuse to recognise what membership of the EU has meant for Britain. Under pressure on Sunday from a cross-party Commons report condemning the failure to prepare for the consequences of no deal, the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, said it would be “perfectly OK”, the international trade minister Liam Fox said it wouldn’t happen, and David Davis insisted he did have a contingency plan, although he didn’t say what it was.
Last June’s Brexit vote was a lesson in what happens when governments fail to address voters’ concerns. As we report, a hard Brexit would leave the UK at the bottom of the G20. Many Brexit voters would be the first to feel the consequences. Mrs May should not pretend it is an acceptable outcome. If MPs demand a vote whatever the outcome of the negotiations, they can insist that it is not.