Home | Breaking News | In this high-stakes game of Brexit, how much of a gambler are you?
The march for a Brexit vote in London, 20 October 2018. ‘Even if Labour came off the fence and backed a new referendum, the effort could still fall short.’ Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

In this high-stakes game of Brexit, how much of a gambler are you?

The prize of remaining in the European Union is big, but a second vote with a no-deal option is a huge risk

In the dead of night, I have been reliving the 2016 referendum. While the autumn rain beats against the windows, and as winter draws nearer, I have been plunged back into those hot, fevered days of two and a half years ago: Nigel Farage beaming beside his “Breaking Point” poster, with its snaking horde of dark-skinned migrants; the shock and sorrow of that same day, as we learned that the Labour MP Jo Cox had been murdered; the bitterness of the arguments that split friendships and broke families. It’s all come back to me.

You see, I’ve been gripped in the early hours by Middle England, the new novel by Jonathan Coe, which follows a clutch of characters as they move through the giddy idealism of the summer of 2012, watching the opening ceremony of the London Olympics, to the sour resentments that erupted four years later. To read Middle England against the backbeat of the current news, with its talk of a second referendum, is to become Brenda from Bristoland ask, horrified: “What, another one?

Start with the first step that would be required if a second Brexit plebiscite is even to be a possibility: the rejection by parliament of Theresa May’s hopelessly flawed exit deal. I know that is all but a certainty, with the tally of publicly declared Conservative rebels now reaching triple figures. But there begins my angst. For if – when – her deal goes down, we take a very large stride towards the abyss that is no deal.

Of course, everyone says that there’s no Commons majority for no deal; there is a consensus that it would be a catastrophe. But a consensus is not enough. Thanks to laws already passed, Britain will leave without a deal on 29 March 2019 unless some other legal mechanism is put in place: no deal is the legal default. The fact that everyone agrees it would be awful is nice, but that consensus is useless unless MPs can also agree on an alternative. We’ve spent much of November marking the centenary of the first world war: we should know that great and powerful nations are capable of walking into disaster quite by accident.

If I were a pro-remain MP, there would be something beyond tactical calculation nagging at me. May’s deal is unappealing to everyone, pro- and anti-Brexit, because it is a compromise between those two positions. That is the nature of compromise. And in other contexts – say, in societies riven by violent divisions – I am on the side of compromise. I’m with the great Israeli novelist and peace campaigner Amos Oz, who writes that compromise is too often seen “as weakness, as pitiful surrender” – whereas, he says, “in the lives of families, neighbours and nations, choosing to compromise is in fact choosing life”. The opposite of compromise is not pride or integrity, says Oz. “The opposite of compromise is fanaticism and death.”

That may seem overblown when applied to Brexit Britain, where, for all the melancholy in Coe’s novel, we are not killing each other in the streets. But, painful though it is for me to face it, 52% of my fellow citizens did vote to leave the EU, and May’s deal does at least reflect that fact. Indeed, there was a curious honesty in Philip Hammond’s admission this week that, yes, the May deal will make us poorer than staying in the EU – but staying in the EU stopped being a democratic option on 24 June 2016.

For all that, pro-remain MPs need not wrestle with their consciences too intensely. The May deal is going down anyway, thanks to those Tory Brexiteers who do indeed see compromise as pitiful surrender. So the question becomes: what should take its place? In the Oz spirit of compromise, I could probably force myself to live with the Nick Boles/Stephen Kinnock Norway-plus plan. Sure, it’s worse than what we have now: we would be rule-takers and we’d be paying for the privilege. But it would simultaneously keep us close to the EU and honour the 2016 verdict. Remember, the ballot paper back then said nothing about the customs union or the single market. All it demanded was that we leave the EU, and the Norway plan would do that.

But, en route to Argentina, May said she would have nothing to do with it. Not least because Norway would preserve freedom of movement, the removal of which is the most scarlet of May’s red lines. (Let’s pause to note here the weirdness of a society that has come to regard “ending free movement” as a positive: for most of the world’s peoples, the right to move freely is one of life’s most cherished liberties.)

So with Norway nixed, May’s deal due to be dead on arrival, and the cataclysm of no deal looming, we find ourselves at a second referendum as perhaps the only way out of the impasse. Mostly, that prospect cheers me: a chance to undo the great mistake of 2016. But I worry. What if the only way a people’s vote can get through the Commons is by offering no deal as an option on the ballot paper? Wouldn’t that be even more reckless than David Cameron’s original offer of an in-out referendum?

Smart, committed people keep reassuring me that my fears are unwarranted. The Commons would never put no deal on the ballot, they say: only viable options could be presented to the British public. Or they insist that, even though it is the legal default, no deal will never actually happen: the grownups in Westminster and Brussels will step in and either pull us back from the cliff edge or else rush through a series of mitigating measures on aviation, medicine, insurance and citizens’ rights to limit the calamity.

In the end, I suspect it comes down to a matter of temperament. Are you someone who is prepared to risk everything for a shot at the big prize – a reversal of 2016 and a new mandate to remain in the EU – or does even a small chance of inflicting a greater disaster on the country, in the form of no deal, make your palms go clammy? The ultimate question for pro-remain MPs comes not from Jonathan Coe but Clint Eastwood. Even after Brexit and Trump, and everything else we’ve lived through: “Do you feel lucky, punk?”

 Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist

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