May’s plan has been defeated; politics is all at sea. But a solution stares us in the face, if both Conservatives and liberals re-think their approach.

The right Brexit plan stares us in the face. The only question is: will the Government and the Labour Leader put the interest of the country above the unity of their parties?

Yesterday, I watched the debate in the British parliament carefully and went also to Westminster and chatted to several MPs. Based on those observations, it seems  obvious to me there is a clear consensus in parliament and the country on the best form of Brexit. If Brexit must go ahead, a clear majority would accept a customs union.

A customs union will allow, just as in Switzerland, some key business regulations to be set in Brussels (without a UK say or vote) but most key areas of national policy to be set at Westminster.

A customs union avoids the need for a hard border in Northern Ireland, thus cancels the ‘backstop’ problem. It trades a loss of sovereignty on a few matters with a wider return of sovereignty over much else.

May has wrongly prioritised Party unity by spending two years preventing parliament from agreeing and ratifying a vision for what relationship Britain wants with the EU. Even now, the so-called ‘agreement’ is still to a large extent a ‘blind Brexit’ where key decisions are – dangerously – delayed until after we have left.

May has also wrongly prioritised Party unity with her ‘red line’ that rejects the European Court of Justice competence over policing the single market. Parliament could live with ECJ competence.

If May and parliament choose the customs union approach, some Tory rebels may quit the whip and she will lose her majority. At this point, she (or her successor) should attempt a government of national unity to exist only to agree the Brexit deal; if that fails, an election will be needed. As I observed, there is a clear Labour + Soft Tory majority for a soft Brexit; but perhaps not a majority within Tory ranks.

Liberals in Labour and Conservative and LibDem ranks meanwhile – hellbent on stopping Brexit — have been wrong to obfuscate and delay the creation of consensus plan for Brexit. (I count myself guilty on that score).

Liberals are right to campaign for a second referendum but their approach has been disingenuous and poorly calculated. Their approach needs to be reframed so that ardent Brexiteers themselves are begging for a second plebiscite. I’ll explain how and explain how it could be timed.

The public expect leaders to do their job and come up with a workable plan. People don’t want some ‘dogs dinner’ failed plan thrown back to them in a cynical ploy to cancel Brexit.

So if there is a second referendum (and there should be), it should put to the people the best possible plan for Brexit that already has consensus in parliament, namely a customs union.

Referenda work in democracies, for example in California and Switzerland, where they present clear fully-formulated propositions. The mistake of the first Brexit referendum was to offer Brexit without defining what it should mean.

The reason a second referendum is justified and necessary is that we simply do not know if a majority exists in the country for any Brexit solution; or if a majority would prefer the status quo (continued EU membership) over any particular Brexit plan.

So that nobody feels cheated, the correct referendum could ask two questions:

  1. Should Britain continue to exit the European Union? YES/NO
  2. If Brexit continues, do you approve of the plan approved by Parliament to leave the EU and remain in a Customs Union? YES / NO

On this basis, hard Brexiteers can campaign for a YES-NO, on the basis that if Parliament’s deal is rejected, Britain will opt for their clean break solution; soft Brexiteers can campaign for a YES-YES; and Remainers can campaign for a NO-YES, confident that even they lose on the existential Brexit question, a soft landing can occur.

Having wasted so much time without building a consensus in Parliament, it will be hard to make a deal before March. However, the Brexit ‘agreement’ is little more than a transition agreement that kicks the can of fundamental issues down the road. And most people can only really judge the merits of Brexit once those fundamentals are agreed.

On the timing, here I’d welcome the advice of technical experts but the correct approach maybe to go ahead with Brexit on the basis of two changes: 1) hardening the political agreement to build a clearer vision on the basis of eliminating the backstop on the basis of customs union; 2) establishing a ‘cooling off’ principle, that could allow Britain to think again on Brexit within the transition period.

The cooling off approach may seem novel, but since Britain will be fully compliant with EU rules during the transition period (and EU countries fully compliant for trading with Britain) a Brexit reversal would not come at a huge cost; most EU countries would also support the notion of the British people being given a chance to think again. Within the cooling off period, it seems to me would then allow a second vote to be put to be put to the people after a new trade deal / customs union had been negotiated, so that people could finally judge on what Brexit means.

One alternative approach – again seeking a vision that does not cheat people — is to delay Brexit in order to negotiate a much more fully-formed agreement, incorporating the customs union and thus removing the need for a Northern Ireland backstop, but, at the same time, shorten the transition so that full exit from the EU, if it goes ahead, is not shortened again.

Either way, there is an approach to go ahead that cheats nobody, slows down nothing, but still gives the people a final say.

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