“You don’t have to be a racist or an antisemite to vote for Brexit,” said writer and political commentator Will Self on BBC News last week. “It’s just that every racist and antisemite in the country did.”
Self's pro-Brexit opponent, Conservative party MP Mark Francois, responded: “That’s a slur on 17.4 million people and I think you should apologize on national television.” Although it seemed to elude Francois, Self was wryly basing his argument on an infamous John Stuart Mill quote. “Although it is not true that all Conservatives are stupid people,” wrote Mill, “it is true that most stupid people are Conservative.”
Their short debate was a perfect example of how incendiary the U.K. government’s floundering attempts to find a way to leave the European Union have become – and how much the crisis has caused the Conservative party to lose face. On Tuesday, U.K. Parliament rejected – by a whopping total of 149 votes – Prime Minister Theresa May's last-minute compromise plan with the E.U. on the proposed deal.
Now, with Brexit at the point of repeated and near-total failure, the possibility of a new referendum on the U.K.'s status in Europe may receive front and center attention.
A key issue has always been the problem of the Irish border, an issue that was thrown into particularly sharp relief last week. Since Northern Ireland is part of the U.K. and the Republic of Ireland is not, the latter is not covered by any Brexit deal. This means that the existing border – which is open for trading, travel, etc. – would be transformed with a dizzying array of impacts if Brexit were implemented.
May has objected to the E.U.’s proposals for an indefinite “backstop” deal: a compromise that allows Northern Ireland to follow some of the rules of the Republic of Ireland and the E.U. in order to avoid the need for a hard border, involving guards, checkpoints and the rest.
“At best, May will be able to get some supportive words from the E.U. that the backstop will be temporary,” Jason Arthur, co-founder of the pro-Brexit campaign group For Our Future’s Sake, told Occupy.com ahead of May's 11th hour dash to Strasbourg to secure final concessions.
“But there will be no substantive changes – and nothing that will ever satisfy the hard right of her party. The current backstop proposal was agreed after the E.U. made concessions to the U.K., and the U.K. are the ones threatening peace in Northern Ireland: another broken promise from the Brexit elite.”
Simon Usherwood, the deputy director of U.K. in a Changing Europe, said the problems with the backstop are numerous.
“The negotiators spent a very long time talking about all the possible ways in which [May] could address this problem,” he said, and "it's important to stress that from the E.U.’s perspective they already feel like they’ve made some big concessions to the U.K. Part of the backstop deal is that whilst you have Northern Ireland following the regulations of the E.U., you’ll also have a customs arrangement that covers the whole of the U.K. That was what the U.K. asked for, and the E.U. rather unwillingly gave it because it’s going to be hard to implement.”
Usherwood said he was concerned that the E.U.’s patience with the U.K. was fraying over the vagueness of the proposed alternatives to the border proposal. “At different points the British have talked about things like using technology so that you don’t need to have physical border checks, but these are all things that could exist, but don’t exist,” he added.
“From the E.U.’s point of view they don’t want to give up something that has been negotiated extensively for something that is speculative and might not work in operation, and doesn’t necessarily solve the problem in the way that they need it to be solved.”
Growing numbers in Britain feel holding a second referendum will be the most democratic way forward, given the chaos that has overshadowed the U.K.'s attempt to leave the E.U. following its 2016 decision in which 51.9% voted in favor of leaving and 48.1% voted against.
“Now we know so much – the public should have their chance to have a final say,” insisted Arthur. “The U.K.'s future prosperity and security should not be put at risk because of Theresa May's inability to satisfy the different wings of her party. She should take 'No Deal' off the table, extend Article 50 and give the public the final say.”
In this hall of mirrors, however, the question is how soon – and will be too late? As of Tuesday night in Britain, all other hopes seemed distant ones at best.