A pun plays on the two different meanings of a word or phrase. For example, this morning I woke up with a jerk. The TV screens around my workplace yesterday were set to BBC news and the captions were quoting a magnificent double entendre that had somehow snuck amazingly past the channel’s editors. James Brokenshire, a minister of some sort, had declared stridently that “Theresa May is going nowhere.” I was puzzling over this because I could not remember whether Brokenshire is a Brexiteer or not. Obviously, one meaning of the phrase “going nowhere” was being intended with such emphasis, but I could not tell which one. Because I treasure the ambiguity’s beauty, I have so far undertaken no internet search to resolve it.
The Prime Minister is going nowhere. Her colleagues cannot overthrow her but she doesn’t possess any remaining trace of political power. She is the dead centre of a gigantic national vortex of impotence and humiliation.
Three days after the last general election, I had written that there would have to be another one. I had indeed assumed that another general election, or even a succession of elections, would come barking at the heels of the first. It is now customary for political pundits to rejoice in rueful self-flagellation whenever their predictions flop, but I still think that the whole country is going nowhere until it agrees to follow my advice. As I had written in my inauspicious article, “It is down to us – we have to take responsibility for the current fiasco and decide, in our many millions, how to clear it up.”
There are only two realistic solutions to today’s political impasse and May’s Brexit deal isn’t one of them. The country can decide to suppress the Brexit vote, a decision that would be ominous for our economy in the long term and leave scars that will never heal on our democracy. Alternatively, the country can go “off the cliff” without a deal – the option that I favour – with an enormous cry of “yippee!”
Everything else is simply irresponsibility and time-wasting. There needs to be a solid parliamentary majority in order to either junk Brexit or to go off the cliff. This is not merely to overcome the practical difficulties in passing the necessary legislation. For the continued credibility of our democracy, a large enough mandate is required to cancel out either the original Brexit vote or the scale of the opposition to it. A consensus clearly cannot be technocratically built out of overlapping fragments, as May’s deal tries to do. It must be a majority opinion that is reached by way of millions of people changing their minds.
The polls are daunting and a crazy paving of conflicting opinions. On Friday, YouGov’s overnight polling showed that 56% of respondents favoured a new referendum rather than going with May’s draft Brexit deal, but that 40% would rather go off the cliff than take the deal. Yet it is the responses to the question of “Generally speaking, what would you like to see happen now?” that display the most hideous divergence of opinion. 16% would accept the deal, the same number that don’t know what they would do at all; 11% would try to renegotiate it; 19% would go off the cliff; 28% would cancel Brexit altogether; and all of this left a pitiful 8% for the ‘People’s Vote’ option of a referendum on the deal.
This means that there are in fact two People’s Votes: the one in which over 17 million people had voted to leave the EU; and the one that is supported by 8% of the people. I still worry about that 8%. Are they getting the full 8% of airtime and television coverage that they are entitled to under the broadcasters’ impartiality guidelines? I am possibly being facetious here though. If the 28% who would cancel Brexit altogether are added to that 8%, it would bump everything up to a far more impressive 36%-of-the-People Vote.
One way to break the deadlock would be with fresh and original arguments. We are all now thoroughly familiar with the respective cases for Remain and Brexit. If we are going to renew Brexit and transform the off-the-cliff option from a wild, radical gambit into political normality, then we will need to move the debate on to new ground. And one potential opening is this: what does the future of the EU actually look like? Is it one in which we can be freer and more prosperous by being in this union, or is it one of political instability, dangerous anti-democratic pressures, and the consequent emboldening of the far-right? Emmanuel Macron, the youthful hotshot who was meant to rejuvenate the EU, is presently enjoying a 25% satisfaction rating amongst his electors. Meanwhile, a standoff is growing in Italy between democratic and anti-democratic forces. Supporters of the EU cannot be allowed to get away with maintaining that it is merely a helpful, apolitical regulator of capitalism. Their eyes should be turned to where they do not wish to go.