May’s deal is terrible. Compared to remaining in the EU, it is economically harmful, reduces cooperation between the UK and other EU member states in many areas of life, including scientific and academic research, reduces the diplomatic clout of the all member states, particularly the UK and has no real upside. The positive case of further trade deals with non-EU states simply does not stack up: the UK would struggle to replicate relationships even close to as favourable as currently exist with non EU members, because of the terms of the withdrawal agreement and existing FTA’s between the EU and non EU states such deals would likely require regulatory alignment with the EU anyway, and, even if all this were not the case, economic gravity implies that any deal with the EU is far more important anyway. The only ‘positive’ argument for May’s deal over and above EU membership is that may allow the UK to restrict free movement. The main problem with this argument is that there aren’t any real benefits to restricting free movement within the EU, just a large amount of extra economic pain, fewer personal opportunities, and a large dollop of gratuitous cruelty, particularly given the way such restrictions are likely to be implemented by a Conservative government.
The one remaining argument for May’s deal is increasingly her own: it’s that or no deal. I assume anyone reading this is already convinced that ‘no deal’ is unfathomably terrible, so it will suffice to say that it avoids none of the cruelty or long term badness of May’s deal, but with a lot more short term chaos. I suppose if the choice really is May’s deal or no deal, May’s deal is the only choice in town, being, unambiguously the lesser of two evils, albeit quite an evil evil to begin with.
The elephant in the room is obvious. Why not simply call the whole thing off? There is an answer to this, which is worth seriously considering. This is that it represents the best possible political compromise. It is not true, as some suggest, that such a compromise cannot represent a stable outcome simply because nobody would choose it above their preferred outcome. This is as, so the argument would go, neither side gets exactly what they want, but both sides get something better than their worst fear. There are then two strands to how this argument progresses. The first is that the stability of a compromise- any compromise, is of value. It allows life to continue and future diplomatic and economic relations to be built. The second strand is political- only if both sides feel a compromise has been reached, and, leavers in particular feel the referendum result has been upheld, can a damaging narrative of betrayal be avoided. This modern Dolchstoßlegende, so the argument goes, would feed the far right in an already precarious time.
The problem with this argument is it presupposes that leading Brexiteers do in fact see May’s deal as a worthwhile compromise. They do not. They will cry betrayal regardless, just this time in the backdrop of a lot of economic pain and cruelty. Perhaps if they were rational and responsible they would value the stability of whatever outcome occurs over the prospect of winning a game of chicken, but the willingness of leading Brexiteers to advocate no deal, and indeed the whole Brexit episode itself, suggests this is not the case.
In what sense, then, does May’s deal represent a compromise? It is at best a compromise between remainers desires and their own, likely misplaced sense of obligation to see through the results of an extraordinarily problematic referendum. Unless the alternative really is no deal, this is not a road it makes any sense to go down. Let’s revoke article 50 already.