The outcome of the 2016 referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union remains provisional. Brexit is coming about not because government or MPs want it but because the people chose it and are said still to want it. What they chose and what they are now offered is less clear than ever. May’s local council, mayoral and European elections offer a window for politicians to re-engage the population about Brexit, listening to their concerns and priorities.
Depressingly, neither the governing party nor the official opposition has grasped the opportunity. Brexit was supposed to force Westminster to venture out of its bubble and rediscover the rest of the country. Yet the political class is more navel-gazing than ever. This is bad for democracy on many levels. Mainstream politicians have to hear what people are saying; they need to test – and if necessary reshape – their arguments; they must balance the people’s wishes with the security of the nation. Instead, the Labour party is split over Brexit and has its work cut out covering the ever-widening cracks in its fragile coalition. The Conservatives’ poll numbers are in freefall; they have resigned themselves to devastating losses in the local elections and are running scared at the thought of European elections. So low are expectations for the Liberal Democrats that the party’s leader announced his departure before the vote.
MPs have been unable to craft a deal, and yet there is only limited engagement with both Brexit’s defenders and its detractors. It is voters who could decide to put an end to the process, to speed it up or reverse the 2016 decision. It has only been a month since hundreds of thousands marched through London in support of a second referendum and six million signatures were amassed on an online petition to revoke the UK’s withdrawal notification. Unless there is compromise, the options look like narrowing to a no-deal Brexit, a parliamentary revocation of article 50 or another vote. This is a dangerous moment in which arch-nationalist politics can flourish. The absence of debate creates the conditions for rightwing populists, and for their racism and authoritarianism. Nigel Farage absurdly poses as the champion of democracy, arguing that his new Brexit party is listening while the establishment does not. Mr Farage is, worryingly, topping some opinion polls .
Even worse lurks in the local elections, where the narrative of betrayal sees voters drifting back to the UK Independence party, which now retails hate speech alongside batty ideas about the purifying effect of a clean Brexit. Waiting in the wings is Boris Johnson, for whom Brexit is a way of finally conquering the Tory party. It ought to be transformed into his route to the margin of political life. The other underwhelming narcissists who subsume the nation to their own egos should join him there.
Politicians need to come clean about the costs of pursuing Brexit – about how it is likely to render poorer many of those places that voted leave; about how it risks peace in Ireland; about the awkward task of redefining the national interest, and trying to give it new meaning while preserving the integrity of the UK. Instead, amid indifference and confusion, politicians have dodged the problem of Brexit. They ought to instead re-engage in these polls, by first organising the millions of EU citizens who have most to lose from Brexit and need to be registered to vote in a week’s time for European elections. Brexit is not going away just because it seems more convenient to ignore it. Politicians have not found a way out; they will only do so by reconnecting with the public.