Tony Rossiter: David Cameron must carry the can for Britain’s sorry Brexit mess

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If, as Donald Tusk has suggested, there is a special place down below for those who ‘promoted Brexit without a sketch of a plan’, the spot closest to the flames should be reserved not for any Brexiteer, but for David Cameron. His EU referendum has divided our country as never before.

Referendums are blunt tools. People can use them to express dissatisfaction with the status quo; history shows that they often lead to bad decisions. Mrs Thatcher denounced them as devices of ‘demagogues and dictators’. In 1934 Hitler used a referendum to gain public approval for his assumption of supreme power. A referendum can reduce a complex issue to a yes/no question susceptible to a simple, rabble-rousing slogan – such as the Leave campaign’s ‘take back control’.

David Cameron called the referendum following frustrating negotiations with the EU over reforming Britain's relationship. Pic: PA

David Cameron called the referendum following frustrating negotiations with the EU over reforming Britain's relationship. Pic: PA

Of course, referendums can be used for good purposes. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, several East European countries used them in votes for independence. Those referendums were in their countries’ national interest. David Cameron’s referendum, by contrast, was in the interest only of the Conservative Party. It was a cynical ploy to buy off Ukip votes and to placate longstanding anti-EU Tory agitators at a time when EU membership was not high among the concerns of most voters. We had an inept and negative Remain campaign and a Leave campaign that was a tissue of lies. The referendum folly was compounded by the Cameron government’s failure to prepare for a possible Leave victory. Mrs May was handed a poisoned chalice but she reached out and grabbed it with both hands. Before the referendum, she had emphasised the importance of the single market and said remaining in the EU would make the nation more secure, prosperous and influential. After the referendum, she rapidly changed tack. She knew that if she wanted to become Prime Minister, she had to embrace Brexit.

With a 52/48 per cent divide, a real statesman would have sought to narrow that gap, listening to Leave voters’ concerns and seeking to bring the country and its people together. That would have required skills of honesty, persuasion and political leadership that are beyond Mrs May. But if she had embarked upon a process of real consultation – with MPs of all parties, with business and industry – it may have been possible to build a consensus.

Instead, Mrs May rushed helter-skelter into the arms of the Brexit extremists. She drew her indelible red lines and then on March 29, 2017 triggered Article 50. To kick off the two-year process of withdrawing from the EU when her Government and her Cabinet were hopelessly split and had no agreed negotiating objectives was an act of extreme folly. In June 2017 she lost her majority in the General Election she had promised not to call and was taken hostage by the DUP at £1bn cost. Six months later she reached agreement with the EU on citizens’ rights, the methodology of the ‘divorce bill’, and commitment to avoiding a hard border in Ireland. The plan presented to the Cabinet at Chequers in July 2018 sought to ensure frictionless trade with the EU by means of ‘a common rule book’ for goods and ‘continued harmonisation’ with EU rules, prompting the resignations of David Davis and Boris Johnson.

The Withdrawal Agreement provides for a ‘divorce’ settlement, expected to amount to £39bn, and a transition period during which the UK has no say in making or amending EU regulations, but has to follow them to the letter: rule-takers, not rule-makers. No wonder the Agreement and the accompanying Political Declaration, which gives no guarantees about our future relationship with the EU, have twice been rejected by thumping majorities.

The Government now has until April 12 either to get Mrs May’s deal agreed or to come up with another plan, involving seeking a longer extension of Article 50. MPs have now held ‘indicative votes’ on eight possible alternatives to Mrs May’s deal – something that should have happened long ago, before triggering Article 50. None of them attracted majority support, but Ken Clarke’s proposal for a customs union came pretty close, losing by just eight votes. Both that and Margaret Beckett’s proposal for a confirmatory referendum received more votes than the Withdrawal Agreement at its last outing; unless that is approved, voting on the more popular options is likely on Monday.

With Mrs May’s last throw of the dice to fall on her sword, suddenly with eyes on No 10, Boris Johnson and his Brexit gang will support a deal they have spent months denouncing. What a shabby, unprincipled lot they are.

We are in a mess which neither a change in leadership nor a General Election is likely to solve. Only two options remain: either a confirmatory referendum (on whatever MPs agree) or a government of national unity.

Tony Rossiter is a former diplomat from North Yorkshire who was the UK representative on an EU Council’s Working Group.