The decision MPs take today is historic but should not be hard. No one voted Leave to be worse off or have less control than they do now. Theresa May’s withdrawal deal would deliver both these outcomes. This is why it should, and almost certainly will, be voted down.
What then? The pace of politics will pick up. A second referendum could be the outcome, and if so neither side should fear it. The argument that taking this great question back to the people might undermine faith in democracy implodes on close inspection. Voting again would mean more democracy – and clarity – not less.
After three years’ due diligence both sides would be campaigning on the basis of reality and principle. The choice for voters would be clear: stay in the EU or leave on World Trade Organisation terms. This is the “clean” break honest Brexiteers want, but the pain it would cause was not part of their prospectus three years ago, and they need to be honest about that too.
Drifting out with no deal is a more likely possibility, right now, than a new referendum. Leaving with no strings attached appeals to Brexiteers, foreseeing a world of opportunities over the horizon even if it means some economic hurt for now. Increasingly, Leavers seem drawn to the pain today, jam tomorrow argument: they rather want the disruption, proof that Brexit will pay.
But we aren’t there yet. The government and parliament have demanded the right to exhaust other options, and they should. First, May wants to test the idea that her defeat and the real threat of no deal might focus minds and bring substantial concessions from Brussels. It’s worth asking. More Commons votes on revised or reworded deals are likely.
A committee of backbenchers will meanwhile try to pass a law to take no deal off the table. That would upend the useful convention that the government runs the country, but these are unconventional times. The government lacks a majority. Parliament rejects its authority, and parliament is sovereign.
The third pretender to power is Labour. Jeremy Corbyn has promised a vote of no confidence in the government and a better deal from Europe if he wins a general election. Let him try. His odds of clearing even the first hurdle are slim to none but the reality check for Corbyn would be salutary.
If neither he nor May nor parliament can fundamentally improve the withdrawal deal on offer, the country will face a stark choice between no deal and a second referendum. That is the outcome we foresee.
May’s critics call her deal Brexit In Name Only. They have a point. It is certainly worse than the status quo. A sensible democracy does not vote for self-harm.