This is the argument put forward by May and her supporters, but rather more significantly it is also the case argued by Martin Sandbu here and other very rational and realistic people. When you have two sides implacably opposed, compromise is often the way forward. No one likes the compromise, but that is the nature of compromises. It a mature democracy where we don’t want to be at our throats all the time, compromise is inevitable.
Labour are actually arguing the same thing. They just think they can get a better compromise, and they have a good case because they will not have to constantly try and appease a large group of Brexiters. But they can only do this when in power, and so if they do not get the General Election they want then all options are open, including arguing for Remain in a second referendum. This too can make sense. If May’s compromise is worse than Remaining, and Labour cannot implement their better compromise, then it makes sense for Labour to campaign for Remain. It is a sensible case that I have yet to hear Labour leaders make, but give them time say supporters.
I want to argue something very different. Let me start with an analogy. You have been feeling unwell for some time. Someone suggests you take some snake oil that they say will make you feel much better. Another person, who happens to be a doctor, says snake oil will do you harm and your ills have other causes that cannot be fixed quickly. You really want your problems cured soon. A third, wise person tells you to compromise: try the snake oil but with half the recommended dose. A compromise seems sensible, so that is what you do. Your temperature soars to 104 and you end up in A&E.
I think this analogy is more accurate than the traditional two sides and compromise idea proposed by May, Labour and Martin Sandbu. The snake oil was sold with the big lie that we could leave the EU, gain sovereignty, reduce immigration but keep the economic benefits of being in the EU. That lie was believed by Leavers. Behind that was a second, more pervasive lie, which is that reducing EU immigration would improve access to public services and increase real take-home pay. In terms of the first lie, the deal May has done keeps a few of the economic benefits of the EU but with a substantial loss of sovereignty. (The deal Labour wants to do keeps even more of the economic benefits but loses more sovereignty.) In terms of the economic dimension (public services, incomes) and sovereignty, a Brexit deal is either worse in one of these dimensions or both. It is difficult to know in what dimension people will be better off or feel happier.
But surely people were voting to leave the EU, and we would have at least done that. But the evidence suggests the EU was of little concern to voters until 2016. According to IPSOS Mori, only a few percent of people thought the EU was an important issue in 2010. In 2015 it only occasionally reached double figures. This strongly suggests that people voted Leave not because they wanted to leave the EU for its own sake, but for what they believed would be a consequence of leaving in some other dimension. This is the key to understanding why a compromise does not work.
Most Brexit voters will not be moderately happy with a deal that makes them worse off: they will not be happy at all. Most Brexit voters will not be moderately happy with a deal that gives the UK less say in the rules the UK has to obey than when in the EU: they will not be happy at all. A true compromise is something that gives each side something, but the incredible thing about Brexit is that what most Leavers want from Brexit is not possible, yet most politicians and much of the media refuse to tell them that.
The curse of Brexit is that anyone enacting it will be unpopular, not because most Leave voters do not get all they want but because they do not get anything they want. In fact, like the snake oil analogy, they will probably be worse off or have less say. Brexit was always a fantasy, and anyone who makes Brexit concrete will fail to deliver that fantasy. As most politicians have not had the courage to call Brexit out as the fantasy it is, voters are likely to blame the politicians who fail to produce their fantasy rather than blaming themselves.
May will keep telling lies, in the tradition of Brexit, to try and get her deal passed. She claimed outside Downing Street that she had secured our departure from Freedom of Movement. She has done no such thing. The final trade deal is still to be negotiated, and will not be known until after it is too late to change our mind. As pointed out here, the proposed Customs Union for mainland Britain is seriously incomplete. Once we have left the EU, we have no options left so we are in an even weaker position than we are now.
To say, as Philippe Legrain does here, that those arguing for Remain are playing Russian roulette with the UK economy are wrong. A majority of MPs asking for a referendum between May’s deal and staying in the EU is called democracy, and clearly if there was not a majority for such a referendum May’s deal is better than No Deal. The whole ‘taking a risk’ story is the result of deliberate choices by a Prime Minister that wants her deal passed on the basis of fear. MPs have to decide what deal is least worse for the UK, and that is clearly staying in the EU.
In June 2016 we narrowly voted to Leave, when the Leave campaign claimed Turkey was about to join the EU and we would have more spending on public services if we left, in a campaign that used money that exceeded election rules the origins of which are still unclear. We now know that Turkey joining the EU is not on the horizon, according to the OBR there will be less money available for public services after we leave, and we will have to end up paying and obeying with no say over the rules. Our best estimates are that the UK economy is already 2.5% poorer as a result of Brexit, and on top of that the Brexit collapse in sterling has cut real wages. According to the lastest large poll two thirds of people want a say on the withdrawal agreement and there is a clear majority to Remain. Here is a similar YouGov poll. This is despite neither main political party arguing for the Remain option. It is time parliament respected the views of the people, not their hope 2 years ago when they were promised the moon but today when those promises have not been delivered.