There’s only one use for the Brexit extension: a General Election

Joe Zammit-Lucia
It is hard to imagine an election being more disruptive than the current state of shambles (Source: Getty)

French President Emmanuel Macron did not cover himself in glory at the latest European Council summit.

But he was right to keep asking the same question: what is the Article 50 extension for?

There are various ways in which the UK can use the extension: keep trying to get an agreement (any agreement) through parliament; go for a people’s vote; or call a General Election. Of the three, the last is now by far the best option.

There is nothing, nothing at all, to make anyone believe that an agreement can get through parliament. There are so many moving parts that the jigsaw cannot be put together in a way that commands a stable majority.

The practical and political barriers to an agreement between the government and the opposition are formidable. And even if the two leaders could agree, with party coherence being what it is, it remains unclear whether their compromise deal would command a parliamentary majority.

The idea that parliament would simply overturn the referendum result and revoke Article 50 without going back to the people first is a delusion that exists only in the minds of a few Remainers.

As for a people’s vote, the views of what should be on the ballot seem to be multiplying.

Some supporters of a new referendum have taken the view that they would be happy to support any deal for now as long as it is then put to the people with Remain as the other option.

This is a combination of hubris and political irresponsibility.

Hubris because, reviving the ghost of David Cameron, they cheerily seem to assume that Remain will win a repeat vote, and it therefore matters little what is put up against it.

Irresponsible because they are willing to put to the people a settlement that they consider significantly flawed, ignoring the risk that it will get voted in through the referendum.

A General Election, on the other hand, has advantages.

First, it will force every party to write their positions on Brexit into their manifestos. This will provide at least a minimal degree of clarity and impose some party discipline.

It will pressure MPs to run on an agreed Brexit position – whatever that might be. Those refusing to buy into the party position would be free to splinter off – which would be a good thing for British politics. Put up or go.

Second, it is unlikely that the Tories will go into another election with Theresa May as leader. It will therefore force an early leadership contest. The new leader will have to make their position on Brexit clear, and then face the voters.

This is an infinitely better outcome than a putsch that shoehorns in a new Prime Minister, free to direct Brexit in their own way without having to bother with securing the electorate’s support. Having an unelected Prime Minister is the last thing the country needs in the midst of this chaos.

The Conservative party fears an election. That says something about the degree of separation between our governing party and the electorate.

That’s why Labour has always been clear that a General Election is its preferred option. So now is the time to press for it – and to press hard. Call off the doomed cross-party talks and see what the people decide.

Counter-arguments that an election would be too disruptive are misguided. It is hard to imagine an election being more disruptive than the current state of shambles.

May herself could be a block to an election, of course. Her unshakeable stubbornness to force her deal through parliament one way or another is what has landed us in the current mess. All signs are that her intransigence continues unabated.

But who knows? Maybe the spirit of Easter, and the realisation that her attempt at keeping her party together has failed, will finally shake her into doing what is right for the country. After all, having to devise a manifesto around which the Conservatives can campaign may be a more effective way of bringing her party together than persisting with the current approach.

A final objection is that there is not enough time to hold a Tory party leadership campaign and a General Election by the end of October while also running local and European elections in May.

This argument falls down because it is hard to imagine that the EU would not grant a further extension if a General Election were the clear purpose. Further extensions were mooted in the same breath as the six-month extension that was granted.

Yes, it’s time to go back to the people – but in the form of a General Election, not a second referendum – at least not yet.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.