Until the UK embarked on Brexit, no major country had ever sought to leave a trade bloc. Britain’s torturous attempt to do so is evidence of why. Two and a half years have passed since the 2016 EU referendum, and only two months remain before the UK’s scheduled departure, but parliament is resolved to be irresolute. Theresa May hoped that her withdrawal agreement would appeal to Remainers and Leavers as a tolerable compromise. Instead, it repelled both. Most Remainers disdained it because it was Brexit, Leavers because it was insufficiently “hard”. Having deployed patronage with promiscuous abandon – a knighthood for John Redwood MP, Privy Council membership for Edward Leigh MP – the Prime Minister lost with dishonour.
There are now no attractive or comfortable options for the UK: it could revoke Article 50 (which would entail overturning a democratic vote), it could stage a second referendum (which would inflame divisions and further undermine parliamentary sovereignty), it could seek a Norway-style deal (which would render it a rule-taker, rather than a rule-maker, and keep free movement), it could leave with no deal (an act of economic self-harm), or it could accept May’s unwanted orphan by means of another parliamentary vote. What no longer exists is the supposed status quo. The spectre of the 2016 Leave vote will haunt any decision to remain in the EU.