Brexit isn’t just a crisis, it’s far more than that
Beth Rigby, deputy political editor
The world looks on askance at Westminster: Brexit has brought about the most serious domestic crisis of modern times.
Theresa May’s government is in near-meltdown, parliament is in full-blown mutiny and the political lines that once defined our party system have been well and truly ripped up.
In the coming week, parliamentarians will try to find a Brexit option that could win out after Mrs May’s Brexit deal was emphatically voted down.
In the face of this crisis, the obdurate prime minister ploughs on, trying to win support for her Brexit deal as others in her party coalesce around schemes to rule out a “no-deal” Brexit; delay the date of Brexit; force through a second referendum or a softer version of Brexit that keeps Britain in the customs union with access to the single market.
But this is not just a Brexit crisis, it’s far more than that.
This is an existential crisis about the very tribes to which our politicians – and we – belong.
As former cabinet minister Justine Greening put it in the Commons on Monday: “The past week has shown that party politics and Westminster will not deliver a resolution on Brexit, because party politics is not the same as Brexit – it is separate from party politics – so the situation will not change and the House will not find a way forward.”
She is, of course, right.
Party politics have been set aside with far more fluid arrangements springing up across the green benches as senior politicians from opposing camps find common ground over Brexit.
They gossip over coffees and plot over WhatsApp groups, finding more in common with those who they fight elections against than those who sit at their sides.
But where she is perhaps wrong is the assertion that Brexit is separate from party politics, and that once Brexit is decided our political traditional divides will return.
I don’t know whether the vote to leave the EU was a result of changing political identities or a catalyst for them.
But it seems to me that, if the post-war lines that have defined the modern democratic era ran red to blue, the new lines drawn in 2016 are firmly around Leave versus Remain.
New polling out this week by the country’s leading pollster Sir John Curtice found a country that is increasingly polarised by Brexit identities rather than party political ones.
Only one in 16 Britons – 6 per cent of respondents – did not have a Brexit identity, while more than one in five polled said they didn’t have a party identity.
Meanwhile, another poll by YouGov for The Times last weekend found that more than a third of Remainers would be upset if a close relative married a strong Leave supporter.
Almost two thirds of respondents said all or most of their friends shared their Brexit stance.
Brexit has left an indelible imprint on our identities and it has left an imprint on our politics too.
Brexit isn’t just an “event” that will happen and everyone moves on.
It is a process.
Even if a Brexit deal passes in the coming months, politicians will be arguing for months, years, to come over what the future trading relationship should look like.
Remainers will want a close economic relationship with the EU, or even a second referendum, while Leavers will want a more distant relationship as they seek to strike trade deals with other countries around the world.
These divisions are likely to define our party politics beyond this fraught period into the next election.
A senior Conservative remainer pointed out to me this week as we talked about the prospect of a snap election, that a Tory manifesto predicated on a hard Brexit (Britain leaving the EU on World Trade Organisation terms) would be a platform on which they could not stand.
Of course it might be too early to claim the traditional left-right divisions in British politics are no longer relevant, but those who see new contours emerging are waiting in the wings to exploit these new political divisions if the opportunity emerges.
Populist-in-chief Nigel Farage told Sky News last week that the existing party structure cannot cope with Brexit.
He said: “People increasingly see themselves as Remainers or Leavers rather than Labour or Conservatives.
“There is a change going on out there.
“I genuinely believe that if the Brexit ball gets dropped, the chance for a new party, perhaps even a realignment of British politics, yes I believe it’s possible.”
Amid this crisis, the two party leaders are found wanting.
Mrs May can perhaps see a cross-party Brexit compromise, but she is a dyed-in-the-wool Tory who cannot – dare not – cross party lines for fear of the consequences it could unleash for her own tribe.
And as for Jeremy Corbyn, he too is partisan to the last, choosing to sit out this fight rather than dirty his hands and champion a viable alternative.
As the two leaders prepare for next week’s debate, they might want to reflect on the events of 7 and 8 May in 1940, when parliament held a two-day debate on the conduct of the Second World War (known as the Norway debate).
From it emerged an all-party coalition headed by wartime leader Sir Winston Churchill.
A cross-party government for extraordinary times.
Moving beyond partisan lines in that moment of national crisis served the country well and could again now if only our leaders could find the imagination and verve to work together.
Instead, they seem content for parliament to decide Brexit without actually bloodying their hands.
Mrs May doesn’t want to reach out of Remainers across the Commons and secure a compromise deal for fear of what it will unleash among her Brexiteers and grassroots members.
Mr Corbyn wants Brexit to happen without his supporters noticing he waved it through.
They hope that after the event, these coalitions of Remainer and Leave MPs will hold together.
But the British people are moving on, and this could throw up all sorts of possibilities for the traditional two-party structure, whatever these leaders wish.
Sky Views is a series of comment pieces by Sky News editors and correspondents, published every morning.
Previously on Sky Views: Hannah Thomas-Peter – Donald Trump’s wall, and the myths that sustain it