The UK’s future depends on a sensible compromise being reached. To achieve it, we will have to delay our departure date
Delay, delay, delay. Today’s parliament well mirrors the nation. It is implacably split. It cannot make up its mind on how to leave the EU next month. So it should just stop, calm down and think.
There is a sensible way forward into the two-year transition period, and it is called Theresa May’s deal with the EU. But since some 80 Tory fundamentalists will not have it and hold her in an arm-lock, to move forward requires Labour cooperation. EU negotiators are at a loss as to why such cooperation has not been forthcoming. The answer is that Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn is as much an anarchist as the Tory fundamentalists. So there is stalemate. Hence the wisdom of delay. A decision has been made to leave the EU. Every bit of evidence, from business and trade to opinion polls and lobbyists, shows a desire to maintain “frictionless” trade, at least in goods and services, with a future Europe. It is equally plain that MPs have shown that finding such a compromise is beyond them. The 2017 House of Commons will stand with the 1648 Rump Parliament as among the worst in history.
The case for adhering to the result of the 2016 referendum is a strong one. “Revise referendums” are tainted with the odour of elites unhappy with first results. But this one was finely balanced and, as such, legitimises compromise over implementation. The obvious compromise is for the UK to remain in Europe’s “economic space”, through a customs union and/or a modified single market. There are objections to this, as to all compromises, and a confirming referendum might afterwards be in order, as in 1975. But the present objection to compromise, that parliament cannot find a way of voting for one, insults its duty as well as the public.
The task for the speaker and government managers is now to fashion a motion or motions this week that can resolve the impasse over delay. The cabinet strategy – or at least May’s strategy – is to go down to the wire. She hopes that her deal can still be squeezed through with a bit of help from her EU friends. This still seems pie in the sky. A matter so vital really should rest on cross-party agreement with Labour and minority parties. A better leader than May would surely have achieved this by now.
Delay would be accepted by Brussels. For a modern country to be stockpiling medicine, bankrupting farmers and paying millions to City “no-deal consultants” may exhilarate the Jacob Rees-Moggs, Boris Johnsons and Owen Patersons. For ordinary Britons it is humiliating and absurd. Whether delay is two months or two years is immaterial – though the longer the better. The principle of pausing, reflecting and compromising is blatantly what the country needs.
• Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist