COMMENT:

Britain finds itself at a beggar's crossroads — one that leads to calamity in every direction.

The path that brought it there began when the Mother of Parliaments, in David Cameron's time, abandoned representative democracy in favour of referenda: on electoral reform; on Scottish independence (an idea that must be looking pretty attractive now); and on membership of the European Union.

They would have done better to have remembered the sage words of 18th Century MP Edmund Burke: "Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment and he betrays, rather than serving, you if he sacrifices it to your opinion."

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No wonder the House of Commons cannot agree on how to effect "the will of the people" on Brexit when most of them must surely know how economically daft and historically regressive it is.

So they have this trilemma: accept the deal Theresa May has negotiated; inflict a no-deal Brexit; or call a second referendum.

May's deal pleases no one — except perhaps a few people in Brussels who are European for a living and who imagine that if they no longer have to worry about the UK, the rest of Europe can link arms and march together towards the broad sunlit uplands of ever closer union while singing the Ode to Joy.

The Commons committee on exiting the European Union, in a highly critical report on the deal last week, concluded that the withdrawal agreement still leaves considerable uncertainty about the position of UK citizens in Europe and European citizens in the UK.

And the accompanying political declaration does nothing to resolve the investment-sapping uncertainty about the future trading relationship.

"What is clear from the Political Declaration is that our degree of market access to the European Union will be related to the degree to which we adhere to its rules," it says.

"The Government needs to be frank and open about how far it is willing to align with EU rules, at the expense of UK regulatory autonomy, if its priority is to secure EU-UK trade which is as frictionless as possible."

And there's the rub. In an era of just-in-time border-crossing value chains, the continuation of frictionless trade across the Channel, and all the jobs that depend on it, will require continued British adherence to EU rules, in the setting of which the UK will no longer have any say.

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No amount of Brexiteer rhetoric about "vassalage" will change that.

The larger context here is structural weaknesses in the British economy (which, to be fair, we share) which Brexit will make worse.

It runs a chronic current account deficit, 3.9 per cent of gross domestic product at the last count. Impeding the half of its trade which is with the EU27 is liable to widen that gap.

Attracting the foreign investment needed to finance the deficit would be a lot harder for a Britain that has locked itself out of the European single market.

Britain also suffers from a productivity problem. Productivity is rising, but more slowly than it used to over the 25 years before the global financial crisis.

The cumulative effect, the Office of National Statistics estimates, is that productivity is 20 per cent lower than it would have been if the historical trend had continued. The effects of endless Brexit uncertainty on investment don't help there.

Then there is the dreaded "backstop". In order to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland (which would breach the Good Friday peace treaty) or moving the customs border into the Irish sea (an affront to the integrity of the UK) the backstop, if triggered, would leave the UK in a customs union with the EU.

It would mean it could not offer any third country, say, New Zealand, access to its market on better terms than the EU does. Only the EU could release it from that arrangement — if terms acceptable to the Irish could be found. Call that Brexit?

But then, it has never been clear why Brexiteers think the UK on its own would be able to negotiate better trade terms with, say, the United States or China than they could secure as part of the much larger EU bloc.

But if May's deal is dead in the water for these reasons, what does that leave?

Crashing out of the EU without a deal at the end of next March would mean chaos in the short term and impose the greatest economic costs in the longer term.

The Bank of England last month put the cost of a disorderly exit at a 10.5 per cent hit to GDP over the next five years compared with a close economic partnership, or 7.75 per cent compared with a less close partnership.

Unemployment would peak at 7.5 per cent (it is 4.1 per cent now) and inflation at 6.5 per cent, and as this would be a supply-side shock, there would not be much that monetary policy could do about it.

For those of a pro-Brexit persuasion, such forecasts are just another exercise in Project Fear.

And that is the problem with the third option of another referendum. It is far from clear what question it would put, or whether it would result in a different outcome from the last one. And if not, what then?

The case for a second popular vote is that it is the only way to cut the Gordian knot of political deadlock and dysfunction at Westminster.

Those voting Leave in 2016 knew what they were voting against, it is argued, not what they were voting for.

But two and a half years later they still don't. No-one does.

And even if the young, who have most to lose and who lean pro-Europe, turn out in the numbers needed to call the whole thing off, the risk is that the result would then be the emergence of a large, angry, anti-immigrant, anti-EU "populist" party or political movement of the kind to be found in much of Europe already.

"They stole your Brexit," would be cry. "They aren't listening. We will." Britain has not been well served by its leaders.