Read: Welcome to the new Britain, where every week is hell
Brexiteers foretold a quick expansion in British industries protected from European competition and European trouble. They suggested, for example, that leaving the EU would free Britain’s waters from European trawlers and that the British fishing industry would boom as a result. Matthew Elliott, Vote Leave’s chief executive, said Brexit would put the U.K. in a uniquely good position for negotiating trade deals. In July 2016, former Brexit Secretary David Davis said new trade agreements “will come into force at the point of exit and they will be fully negotiated.” This could not be further from the truth. Two and a half years on, the U.K. is no closer to an independent trade deal with anyone.
Brexit, as described to the people who voted for it, was supposed to turn the U.K. into a commanding global player by removing it from the global stage. That’s incoherent. And that is why Prime Minister Theresa May is having such a hard time enacting it.
The proposal she put before Parliament in January was a complete muddle, and it was voted down by a resounding majority of 230. It did not resolve central questions on trade, immigration, or the nature of the U.K.’s future political relationship with the EU.
This week, the Conservatives managed to pass an amendment, giving the illusion of a united party, that instructed May to renegotiate her deal with the EU. She is supposed to focus on how the border with Ireland will work when the U.K. leaves the union. But a renegotiated deal is a unicorn—it is not going to happen. Europe and the prime minister have said as much. Again and again. The liberal wing of the Conservative Party wants to protect rights and jobs, while its hard right wants to fully escape the EU. May will never succeed in pleasing both sides.
Read: Theresa May lives to fight another day. But for what?
This, then, is the reason for contemplating another referendum. In 2016, no one knew how much Brexit would cost. No one knew that this internal contradiction—that Britain would close and open up to the world at the same time—would produce such a catastrophic car crash. No one can say what it will mean for our population, which is aging like most in the developed world, to suddenly stop the free movement of European citizens into our country. Most likely, the country will struggle to staff many of its most important businesses and public services.
The lack of clarity means that the public should have a say in how to move forward. We have to have this out, properly. Under any normal circumstances, the country would be having a general election now, but the will of the Conservatives to keep their hands on the tiller of power, without any real direction, prevents that outcome.
The truth is that the 2016 campaign was terrible on both sides. The argument for continued membership in the EU was that Britain would be worse off without it. True enough, as has been shown by the economic reaction since the vote, but utterly uncompelling, given the next-to-zero wage growth experienced by huge sections of the population from the 2008 crash onward. What’s more, austerity fiscal policies pulled the rug out from under many communities. People felt that they were being asked to vote to protect a status quo that was not working for them.