In the middle of the impassioned legal and constitutional arguments around the prime minister’s decision to suspend parliament, it is easy to lose sight of the substantial issues. I don’t want to minimise the significance of the government’s attempted constitutional coup, but it has no direct bearing on the Brexit debate.
Two significant developments in the last few days do, though: one is the move by the Liberal Democrats to commit to campaigning in the expected general election to cancel Brexit altogether by revoking Article 50. The other is the suggestion that Boris Johnson is actually attempting to negotiate seriously for a deal — one that is not greatly different from his predecessor Theresa May’s, albeit with an Irish “backstop” arrangement exclusive to Northern Ireland.
As to the first, Liberal Democrat MPs have already backed revoking Article 50 as the only alternative to a no-deal Brexit in the rounds of indicative voting in March. But we took the view that as long as parliament, like the country, was so divided, it was necessary to go back to the people to resolve the issue through a referendum.
The Commons fell just short of a majority for a referendum in indicative voting; revocation was more heavily defeated. But if parliament were now to opt for a general election rather than a referendum, and should our party win a majority, that would be a sufficient mandate to revoke. Our Brexit position provides that clarity. Then, we hope, the country could draw a line under Brexit and get on with the numerous issues currently being ignored.
Objectors will say that the Liberal Democrats won’t win the election; how can the party possibly go from 17 (at the latest, rapidly rising count) to the 325 or so required to win? Actually we could. We have been victims of the first-past-the-post electoral system in every election since the second world war. Even in the doldrums of the last few years, we should have had, on a proportional basis, around 45 MPs rather than 8 in 2015 and 12 in 2017.
But once the vote share rises from the currently projected 20 per cent to the mid-30s, dramatic things start to happen to a party’s fortunes under FPTP: we would then make disproportionate gains. The Scottish National party landslide in Scotland in 2015 and near-landslide in 2017 owed a lot to this phenomenon: the vagaries of FPTP get magnified when four parties are in serious contention for some seats.
With these circumstances replicated around the UK, and Remain now regularly polling a majority, the prospect of the Lib Dems being able to deliver hundreds of seats in the Commons is not nearly as remote as it might first appear. The result would effectively close the Brexit issue down and begin an overhaul of our discredited, horribly dysfunctional, over-centralised constitutional arrangements. We would relish the challenge to launch a democratic revolution.
The second scenario is that the government is, despite an apparent lack of activity, engaged in serious attempts to revive a Brexit deal under which Northern Ireland could remain in the EU customs union and the single market. Hitherto that possibility has been anathema to the Democratic Unionist Party, if not to the Remain majority in the province.
Because the DUP has had considerable leverage since 2017 as the guarantor of the Conservatives’ governing majority, uniformity within the UK has acquired an almost religious status, although in practice there are already significant differences. (It is a curious and cynical paradox that the DUP demand lesser rights for the women of Northern Ireland but identical customs arrangements.)
A dramatic U-turn is now conceivable. The government has lost its majority with or without the DUP, so their leverage is diminished. But some Labour MPs, desperate for a deal, may yet capitulate and connive with Mr Johnson to vote for a withdrawal agreement. Of course, serious objections would remain to what is a seriously “hard” Brexit. The original red lines — no single market and no customs union — will still make it, for most of us, a bad deal. And it is blind: the terms of the UK’s future relations with the EU will still have to be negotiated from scratch, from outside.
If we get to the point of a vote on this new version of the deal, Mr Johnson will have to consider how to get the Remainer majority in parliament onside. It would require more imagination and flexibility than Mrs May was capable of, but a majority could be assembled — if the deal is subject to a confirmatory referendum. The public would get the final say, with only fundamentalists crying betrayal.
It is possible therefore to see, from opposite ends of the political spectrum, how Brexit might be resolved. We shouldn’t cheer too soon but our chances are stronger than ever.
The writer is a former Liberal Democrat leader and business secretary