Hanging over this debate about the pros and cons of the deal is the question of what overturning it would do to the health of Britain’s democracy. Parliament has the legal right to ignore the referendum. But after a record number of people voted (to “take back control”, no less), it could be catastrophic for trust in mainstream parties if it were to do so.
In truth, the democratic argument is more complicated. The vote to leave was an expression not just of Euroscepticism but of a wider frustration. It exposed divisions by age, region and class that the old left-right party divide had covered up. Far from bridging those divides, the bitter arguments since the referendum have if anything caused the two sides to move even further apart. Overturning the vote would risk making them irreconcilable. But adopting a Brexit deal like the one on offer would be unlikely to heal those wounds. Indeed, to the extent that the referendum was a howl by the left-behind against rule by remote and uncaring elites, this form of Brexit could make those problems worse. Anger at unaccountable rulers would not be assuaged by a deal in which Britain followed orders from people it could not elect. And those keen just to get the whole thing over with might find that Brexit marked only the beginning of national argument about the relationship with the behemoth next door.
Nor is it clear that the democratic thing to do is to hold people to the result of a two-year-old, narrowly won referendum, when the consequence of the vote has turned out to be quite different from what many voters expected. Polls suggest that a small majority now prefers Remain to Leave; more might prefer Remain to a compromise like the deal on offer. Almost all MPs want to respect the will of the people. The question is whether the people’s will found its perfect and enduring expression in 2016, or whether it might have changed.
There is no simple way out of this endgame. Whether the Brexit deal is accepted or rejected, it will scar Britain for years. And yet too many politicians are still grandstanding. Some Brexiteers still pretend there is a Plan B that would deliver a painless exit. Labour is mainly concerned with forcing a general election. That needs to change, and fast. This momentous decision must be made in the most reasoned way possible and with the maximum information available. Politicians of all stripes have spent the past two years talking about the national interest. In the coming weeks they must weigh up where they think it lies.