Andrew Vine: Vote or no note, Brexit leaves us with a bitter legacy of division

A crestfallen Theresa May returns to 10 Downing Street shortly before pulling the Commons vote on her Brexit deal.
A crestfallen Theresa May returns to 10 Downing Street shortly before pulling the Commons vote on her Brexit deal.
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IT would take a seer to rival Nostradamus to predict what will 
happen after the Government bowed to the inevitable and pulled tonight’s Commons vote on Theresa May’s deal to leave the EU.

Condemned on all sides, and with the Parliamentary arithmetic pointing towards defeat, the Prime Minister had the doom-laden air of somebody sleepwalking towards a political disaster when she made another emergency Commons statement.

Theresa May was trying to keep her spirits up when she attended church in her Maidenhead constitutency on Sunday.

Theresa May was trying to keep her spirits up when she attended church in her Maidenhead constitutency on Sunday.

And maybe worse than that, she continues to give the impression of not having the first clue about what to do next. That is bad enough, but equally worrying, nobody else appears to have a clue either. Not the ardent Conservative Brexiteers who have made her life such a misery, nor Remainers, nor Labour.

There has been no greater period of uncertainty and division for Britain – in peacetime – in living memory. None of the great political upheavals of my lifetime comes anywhere close, not the blackouts and industrial strife of the 1970s, the miners’ strike of the 1980s, mass unemployment, the poll tax riots, inner cities in flames or, more recently, protests against the invasion of Iraq.

These events caused agonies for our country and soul-searching about where we were going and what we had become. But there was a crucial difference between all of them and what is happening now.

Amid each of those crises of the past, an alternative course was always clear and could be addressed by either a change of government or a change of heart by the party in office.

But that isn’t the case this time. The Opposition has failed to put forward a coherent alternative course, partly because it is hardly less split than the Government, and partly because the whole issue of Brexit is so thorny there is a complete lack of certainty about the best way forward.

Our politicians appear not to know what to do, and the talk of handing the whole thing back to the public in another referendum is the clearest illustration of that.

Even now, we do not know if the Prime Minister may feel compelled to resign. Or she might be forced from office by the vultures in her own party who have been circling for months. The Government may fall. Or none of these things might happen.

A Parliament with no idea where it is going should be of the greatest concern to us all. So should companies stockpiling food and medicine, and the Army being put on standby to help in the event of a civil emergency caused by shortages.

However this turns out beyond the traumas that the next few days are almost certain to bring, there is a question for the longer term that goes beyond trading relationships and border controls with Ireland.

It is how the divisions sown by Brexit are to be healed, both within politics and in society.

There is a possibility at the end of all this that the electoral credibility of the Conservatives will be so badly damaged they will be out of power for a decade or more.

If the latest turmoil leads to a general election, how can the Tories possibly go to the country and say they have a manifesto around which the party can rally after the savagery of its infighting? Nobody will believe them, especially if it comes after a bruising leadership contest.

Nor does Labour offer an answer. Nothing it has said so far convinces that Jeremy Corbyn could have made a better fist of Brexit than Mrs May.

A gulf has opened up between politicians and the electorate. For those who voted in the Brexit referendum to remain, there is anger at the mess the whole thing has turned out to be.

For those who voted to leave, there 
is also anger, that the promises made have not been fulfilled and the eventual shape of life outside the EU is likely to be very different from the vision they were
sold.

This has been an issue that has pleased nobody, and unsettled the entire country. Division has been created everywhere, in families, workplaces and communities.

If, as the Bank of England and civil servants forecast, prices rise and the economy suffers post-Brexit, those divisions will grow even worse, the arguments more bitter than now, an endless blame game of “You voted for this, and look what’s happened”.

Brexit was supposed to be about Britain striding forward into the future with renewed vigour and confidence. Instead, it has become about unhappiness, anxiety and uncertainty.

If it does end up with another referendum as the only way to break an impasse, it will deepen divisions still further. If, and it’s a big if, the country changed its mind and voted to stay in the EU, those who voted to leave two years ago will feel as if their democratically-expressed will has been disregarded.

However it turns out, this doesn’t feel like a moment when healing Britain’s internal conflicts can begin. If anything, it may make them worse.