As the Brexit shambles rolls on, I've been puzzled by the hostility of Brexiteers to the proposal that Theresa May is trying to sell at home and to the European Union. A weird domestic alliance of hardline Leavers and zealous Remainers could block May's plans, regardless of how the EU responds — and the result might well be a no-deal Brexit.
Dedicated Leavers might ask, "And what would be wrong with that?" The answer, as they ought to see it, is simple. A with-deal Brexit would be harder to reverse than a no-deal Brexit. Helping May move forward with what most Leavers regard as a squalid compromise — an application for "vassalage," no less — would advance their cause by increasing the probability of a Brexit that sticks.
Wolfgang Munchau recently argued the opposite in the Financial Times. He says there's no plausible way to get from a no-deal Brexit to cancelling Brexit altogether, as Remainers might hope, and thus sees their flirting with this outcome as short-sighted. I think that's wrong. No question, a no-deal Brexit is a risky venture for Remainers, for the reasons Munchau explains, and getting from no deal to cancelling Brexit altogether wouldn't be straightforward. But the path from a with-deal Brexit to getting Brexit reversed would be far more demanding. A no-deal Brexit is a bigger risk for Leavers than for Remainers.
Bear one crucial point in mind. May's plan, or something like it, would be attached to the withdrawal agreement (and to the bill that would make it law in the U.K.) as little more than a statement of intentions regarding post-Brexit talks on future trade relations. It would settle nothing. Even if the EU doesn't reject it first, Leavers would be free in due course to oppose parts of the scheme they don't like — notably the idea of keeping the U.K. in the single EU market for goods, which requires a common rulebook that Britain will have no part in amending. Meanwhile, the U.K. would have left the EU, and in a relatively smooth way.
A smooth exit, leaving the U.K. in the single market for a limited transitional period, won't incline Leave supporters to change their minds. Opinion might even move the other way — when the ceiling, to some Remainers' astonishment, doesn't actually fall in. And rejoining the EU once Britain has left would involve a burdensome and (in the circumstances) humiliating accession process that would likely strip the U.K. of privileges it currently enjoys. All in all, an orderly departure would serve to entrench Brexit pretty well.
Remainers, on the other hand, still have a fighting chance of getting Brexit reversed if the project continues to descend into chaos. Remainers are right that a no-deal Brexit will be highly disruptive — and the closer it gets, the clearer this will become. The plans that the government says it's making to turn miles-long stretches of motorway into improvised lorry parks, not to mention for stockpiling of foods and medicines, are apt to make people wonder if leaving the EU is such a good idea.
Defeating May on her plan would also push British politics even deeper into turmoil. Given her serial blunders and reversals, May's capacity to hang on to leadership of her party (if you can call it leadership) has been impressive. But there must be limits, and defeating her withdrawal plan in parliament would surely finish her as prime minister. New elections could follow, and amid this worsening mayhem and governmental paralysis, the idea of a second referendum could gain ground.
True, the EU would have to indicate a willingness to let Britain change its mind. That can’t be taken for granted. (Europe has leadership problems of its own.) But this doesn’t change the bottom line. Remainers need to persuade people that Brexit will hurt — so the more it hurts, and the sooner it hurts, the better for their purposes.
If hardline Leavers could see where their interests lie, they'd back May's plan, get Brexit done, then press for the kind of post-Brexit arrangements they want. Their idiotic preoccupation with vassalage gives Remainers their last best chance to cancel the whole idea.
Clive Crook is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and writes editorials on economics, finance and politics. He was chief Washington commentator for the Financial Times, a correspondent and editor for the Economist and a senior editor at the Atlantic.