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Slow Train Coming

January 7th 2019

The ‘trolley dilemma’ is one of philosophy’s most enduring and famous thought-experiments. You will have heard of it. A train is careering down the tracks towards a group of children and the brakes are not working. You are stood at the switch - by pulling a lever you can divert the train and save the kids. But on the other track is stood a mechanic, going about his work and completely oblivious. Do you exchange his life for those of the children by intervening?

Variations on this morbid little game abound, each helping to illustrate one dilemma or another. In some the children are replaced by a gaggle of reprobates and the mechanic by a Mother Theresa-esque doer of good works. Sometimes the choice is between one person who doesn’t look after themselves and is likely to die a premature death and another who is fit and healthy with many years before them. You get the gist.


With twelve weeks to go until Britain leaves the EU, Theresa May is playing an innovative real-life version of the trolley dilemma. Her test subjects are Members of Parliament and the game goes like this: If you vote for my deal then you will get a relationship with the EU that almost no-one wants and which will certainly make us poorer than we would otherwise be, but if you don’t we crash out and we will be many, many times poorer even than that and some people might not get the medicine they need to live. It’s a doozy. The way that thought-experiments work is by limiting choice. You can’t just say “well I would lay a new piece of track and divert the train to that, saving everyone”. That is the philosophy equivalent of using your first wish to ask the genie for infinite further wishes.

Still, parliamentarians are not used to being placed in such an uncomfortable, binary box. Normally there are fudges that can be confected, compromises to be reached, long grasses into which difficult balls can be kicked. For this reason, MPs of all stripes are hatching cunning plans. Nick Boles and Stephen Kinnock have EFTA, Robert Halfon and Lucy Powell have a new ‘Norway ++’ plan, Justine Greening and Chris Leslie have a ‘People’s Vote’. Even the archest of arch Brexiteers aren’t really content with a straight No Deal, they are pushing a ‘managed No Deal’ which is like No Deal except with... deals. Finally, there is Her Majesty’s Opposition who demand - in the space of twelve weeks - an election, a new Labour Government and a complete renegotiation in order to achieve something called a ‘jobs first Brexit’.

But Brexit is different to the usual ‘too difficult’ policy questions. It has that time limit. And so any and all of the alternatives to Mrs May’s binary fall at the first hurdle. The train is coming, speeding, down the track. Do you switch for May’s deal as the least worst option or do you let it mow down those railway children? Except that, by some miracle not afforded to first year philosophy undergraduates, it turns out that this train has a brake after all. An emergency brake, if you like. The Government can pause or revoke Article 50. This comes with all sorts of caveats, of course. Our partners in the EU would need to consent, or at least not object. Parliament, too, would have to agree. But it can be done and it would give everyone time to think - to work out a better solution, one way or another, or at least to clear some innocents off the tracks. When May’s deal is voted down next week - as it almost certainly will be - the clamour for a pause will grow. When it is voted down a second time - which, short of Labour abstaining or a radical change in thinking from the not notoriously flexible DUP, it will be - backers of any and all of the above ‘alternatives’ will demand it. Opponents of this deal and of No Deal have been handicapped thus far by their inability to agree on what should happen instead. Pausing Article 50 may well become the flag around which they can gather.

For the Prime Minister, of course, this could spell the end. She has staked her premiership on the idea (and it may well be that she is right, on this) that there really is no deal available other than that which she has achieved. That being the case, for Mrs May there is literally no point in pausing Article 50. And for her party, and for Parliament, if Article 50 is to be paused there is literally no point in Theresa May. Yes, the ERG’s cock-up coup has theoretically gifted her immunity from a challenge. But in politics no-one is ever really safe. It is hard to see how she could continue.

For this reason, the Prime Minister will do everything in her power to keep the choice binary and terrifying. And her opponents will keep up the pressure to dilute her brutalising logic. Two hundred MPs have written to her demanding that No Deal be ruled out. At the same time, in Kent, an artificial traffic jam of lorries has been created to demonstrate to the EU - somehow - that we are serious about crashing out of it comes down to it and to show MPs just how bad that would look. In other words, we are in a game of chicken. All of us children on the tracks while the PM screams ‘choo choo’ and dares MPs not to press the switch. Happy New Year!