A Multiple-Choice Brexit

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Britain is edging toward multiple-choice politics. This may not be a bad thing.

When you have a particularly doltish group of students, unable to pass even the simplest exam, one well-worn solution is the multiple-choice test. Confronted with four possible answers to a question, even the least smart student stands a sporting chance of getting it right. (It was certainly true with me and physics.)

The shambolic politics of Brexit now seem to be heading toward an exam with three or four answers to a question. It is unclear whether members of Parliament or the general public will be the examinee — probably both. Weirdly, this may be the least worst solution. With less than 100 days until Brexit, it is wrong for Theresa May to try to stop it.

First, some background. At a time when Westminster needs a Blackadder (the Machiavellian cynic played by Rowan Atkinson in the eponymous BBC series), it is stuck with a Baldrick — Blackadder’s useless sidekick who inevitably possesses a “cunning plan” that is either mad or beyond his ability to carry out. You could argue that the first Baldrick was Prime Minister David Cameron, whose cunning promise of a referendum helped him win a slender majority in the 2015 election — but also enabled Brexit, which he did not want, to happen. The next was Boris Johnson. His last-minute decision in 2016 to join the Leave campaign was a tactical wheeze to win support with the Brexit-obsessed Tory faithful, positioning him to succeed Cameron. Yet when Leave unexpectedly won, Johnson had no clue what to do next; in the chaos he helped cause, the Tories gave May the top job.

May was supposed to be a safe pair of hands, but she too had a cunning plan. She called a snap election in 2017 with the aim of giving herself a large Tory majority that would bolster her Brexit negotiations with the European Union. Instead, her ham-fisted campaign caused her to lose her slim majority, forcing her to rely in Parliament on the Democratic Unionists from Northern Ireland (the least flexible group of Britons on the issue of the Irish border).

Indeed, throughout her negotiations with Europe, May has proved herself more Baldrick than Blackadder, throwing away the few good cards she had. She declared Article 50 too early, setting a clock running against her: Britain is now due to leave on March 29, deal or no deal. And she made virtually no preparations for the “no deal” she kept telling Britons was “better than a bad deal.” The Europeans, knowing that “no deal” would in fact grievously hurt the British economy, smiled and waited until May, running out of time, gave in. She now has to hawk a Brexit deal with a lengthy transition period and with an especially poisonous (and possibly indefinite) Irish “backstop.”

You would imagine that British politicians would have had enough of cunning plans by now. However, two new Baldricks have appeared, both bent on destroying May, but whose cackhandedness has helped her live on.

The least cunning assassins are the hardline Tory Brexiteers, led by Jacob Rees-Mogg. They are zealots, who would prefer no deal, despite the damage it would do to the economy. As an example of their handiwork, recall that a week ago May looked doomed. She had been forced to postpone the parliamentary vote on her compromise plan, and she was about to head off to Brussels to beg EU leaders for concessions they were never going to give. What did the Brexiteers do? They cluelessly triggered a rapid leadership election. In the end, 117 out of 317 Tory MPs voted against May; enough to hurt her but not enough to win.

Under the Tory party rules, May is now safe from a leadership election for another year. Had Rees-Mogg and friends waited even a few days for her to return empty-handed from Brussels (as she did), they might well have ousted her. Now Brexit will be run by a premier they don’t trust.

The other Baldrick is Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. His Brexit plan is so cunning that it is invisible. He has never unveiled it and possibly does not actually know what it is. You could argue that his ignorance, feigned or real, makes sense so long as the Tories keep forming circular firing squads. Eventually, though, Corbyn is going to want to bring down the government and force a general election — and he has nothing to offer the British people other than more division. Although many Labour MPs and constituents want another referendum, Corbyn does not.

There is also the problem that Corbyn scares people. He’s a Marxist, and memories are long enough for Britons to remember his ties to the Irish Republican Army. This is why, despite May’s obvious incompetence, the Conservatives are still ahead in the polls. If anyone other than Corbyn were leading Labour, it would now sweep to power.

So where does Brexit go from here? May’s answer is that she will shuttle back and forth to Brussels — and have a vote on her plan in mid-January. She hopes to turn the indefinite backstop into a temporary one. Even if she gets European assurance on that point — and the omens are not good — her plan still looks unlikely to pass Parliament. Then she might try another soft Brexit plan, such as the “Norway plus option,” where Britain leaves the EU, but remains in the customs union and the single market. That sounds like a wonderful compromise, except Britain would have to accept the free movement of people and lots of rules set by Brussels, which means that it is unlikely to pass.

Keep in mind that time will be running out. In theory, this could lead, by default, to a hard Brexit. In practice, only the 100 or so Tory Brexiteers want that. Corbyn may try to force a general election, but neither the Brexiteer Tories nor the Ulster Unionists seem quite stupid enough to let him have one. Many Remainers think there might be a parliamentary majority for another referendum if Tory and Labour MPs were given a free vote, but party bosses are unlikely to let that happen. The parliamentary arithmetic doesn’t really add up for anyone.

This is where the multiple-choice exam comes into play. It could take place initially in Westminster and then in the country as a whole. In Parliament, it might just come in a succession of votes. MPs could be given a nonbinding vote to express their preferred option, along the lines of what they did when they undertook House of Lords reform in 2003. May has angrily rejected this idea. Over time, and if no clear majority for anything emerges, it’s possible she and perhaps even Corbyn would change their minds.

This will drive the Brexiteers mad. The initial referendum was supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime vote, they will point out. But it is also clear that circumstances have changed. In 2016, many people who voted “Leave” had no clear idea of the consequences (Johnson and Rees-Mogg depicted it as a nirvana of prosperity, where Britain “took back control” of its future and the money given to the EU could be spent building new hospitals). Now the reality of Brexit is clearer: It will be either a bit of a fudge, where economic pain is avoided but Britain remains half-married to the EU for a while; or a hard exit, with a lot of economic pain in the short term, followed by a possibly prosperous independent future.

Under some scenarios, Britain would have to revoke Article 50 to get the time it needs to organize and hold a referendum. The EU would probably grant this wish. Its leaders might even offer more sweeteners to the Remain cause in the hope of keeping Britain in the fold.

The big question is: What question to ask? The conventional binary decision — in or out? — seems unfair, as it is not clear what sort of Brexit comes with an “out” vote. The best approach would be to offer three options: Remain, a hard Brexit and some form of a soft Brexit (perhaps May’s deal with Brussels). Voters would then be asked to rank their top two choices. Assuming none of these gets more than 50 percent, the lowest-ranked choice would be removed — and then the second choices divided. You could add another middle option — like the Norway plan — and then ask people to choose among the first three.

The multiple-choice exam has three advantages. First, voters would be more aware of what they were voting for. Second, you would probably end up with a sizable majority voting for something as their first or second choice, thereby conferring more democratic legitimacy on the winner. And third, the people of Britain would own the decision: There would be no excuses, or at least far fewer than if Parliament dumped one version or another of Brexit (or Remain) on the country.

This matters. The sad truth about us Britons is that too many of us are Baldricks, convinced there is a cunning way out. Useless though our leaders are — and the past two years have been a colossal failure of leadership — polls show that we still refuse to make thorny choices. Many Britons want a life where they have access to the EU’s single market but are able to keep immigrants out; where the Irish border remains open, but Northern Ireland stays out of the EU; where Britain remains in the customs union for big trade deals, but can negotiate smaller ones on its own.

Sadly, these are “either … or” not “both … and” choices. Britons have to choose — and no number of cunning plans will allow them to find their way around this knotty fact. So give voters a series of choices and let them rank how they view them. It is the least unfair option.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

John Micklethwait is editor-in-chief of Bloomberg News.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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