An anti-Brexit demonstrator waves a Union flag, also known as a Union Jack, with an European Union (EU) flag outside the Houses of Parliament in London, U.K. (Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg)

Stop the Brexit Countdown and Think Again

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- In a series of votes last week, Britain’s House of Commons decided to reject (again) Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit agreement with the European Union; to rule out a no-deal Brexit; to delay the exit process; and to set aside, for now, calls for a second referendum.

As you can see, the list of things Britain doesn’t want is impressively comprehensive. All that remains is to find something, anything, it does want — and that the EU might conceivably agree to. If nothing else happens, in 11 days a no-deal Brexit will occur by default, whether the Commons wants it or not.

The best way out of this mess hasn’t changed. The U.K. needs to reflect on what it has learned since it voted to leave the EU in 2016, revisit that decision, and legitimize a new policy through a second popular vote.

This is still possible. Disappointing though it was, last week’s vote against a new referendum doesn’t settle the matter. Labour MPs were told to abstain for tactical reasons — causing dissent in the ranks — even though their leaders have recently moved toward backing a new “People’s Vote.” The question can and should be posed again this week.

May, though, remains intent on winning support for the deal she negotiated with Europe. Incredibly, she might yet succeed in this, despite the scale of the defeats she’s already suffered. The prime minister is calculating that the Brexit supporters who’ve denounced the deal up to now as Brexit in name only may come around to it if they think the alternative is a long delay leading to a softer Brexit or no Brexit at all. She has promised a third vote on her deal this week, saying that if it passes she’ll ask Europe for only a short delay — and that if it fails, a longer one will be needed.

The great majority of MPs understand that May’s deal will satisfy nobody. Not merely imperfect, it isn’t even a defensible compromise, because it would deny Britain many of the economic benefits of EU membership while delivering less political autonomy, not more. Many of the MPs who’ve supported it, or might switch to support it, understand this too — but they cling to the idea that, in the fullness of time, they can take a bad Brexit and make it better. This is a delusion. After two years of fruitless back-and-forth, no such outcome is in view. Meanwhile, endless uncertainty over Britain’s future is exacting an enormous political and economic toll.

If the prime minister’s last-ditch tactics succeed, it will be the most instantly toxic triumph in modern British history. May should ask herself whether this is what she would wish to be remembered for.

Whatever she decides, Parliament should reject the deal one last time and force the government to ask for a longer delay, with the express purpose of undertaking a thorough rethink followed by a new referendum. EU leaders, exasperated as they undoubtedly are, would probably go along with this.

With time almost up, Britain teeters between making a disastrous mistake and admitting what most MPs, ministers and the prime minister herself now surely understand — that the Brexit project has gone irretrievably wrong. The country’s politicians can still call a halt. If they refuse, history’s verdict will be brutal.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

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