As Boris Johnson’s increasingly rogue government ramps up the threats and rhetoric, and death threats land at MPs’ doors, Britain’s worried political herbivores are frantically hunting for a Brexit outcome that can put a divided country back together before its frenzied carnivores rip it apart for good.

It is a worthy cause, but a deluded one. There is no Brexit outcome that will heal Britain’s divides. There is no deal that can be struck, no new vote that can be held, that will not inflame opinion on at least one side. A second referendum won’t do it. Nor will revocation. Nor will Norway Plus, nor Theresa May’s deal. No deal won’t cut it. Nothing can achieve it. It is impossible.

The main reason is the role of “elite cues” – the way that voters draw their opinions from trusted elite voices on their side. Nigel Farage, one such elite, will always benefit from whipping up anger over any Brexit short of no deal; the Lib Dems, while far less toxic, will benefit from exploiting Remainers’ resentment at the pitfalls of any Brexit at all. 

We’ll tell you what’s true. You can form your own view.

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Consider how Brexit has played out. Theresa May pledged to end free movement of people. As if by magic, pro-Brexit elites ceased their years of moaning about immigration and found other grounds for complaint. Johnson looks at excluding Great Britain from the sovereignty-limiting backstop – and so Farage claims any Brexit deal is no Brexit at all. Leave promised a deal would be easy; now, any deal is a sell-out. The transformation is remarkable, and manufactured entirely from the top.

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UK news in pictures

Shape Created with Sketch.
UK news in pictures

1/50 27 September 2019

Gallery assistants pose with an artwork entitled ‘Devolved Parliament’ by British artist Banksy, during a press view in London ahead of Sotheby’s contemporary art sale, as part of the Frieze Art Fair

2/50 26 September 2019

England’s Jonathan Joseph is tackled by United State’s Marcel Brache during their group match at the Rugby World Cup in Japan. England scored seven tries on their way to winning 45-7

3/50 25 September 2019

Tributes for former Rangers player Fernando Ricksen at Ibrox Stadium. Today, the funeral procession will pass Ibrox Stadium before making the journey to Wellington Church

4/50 24 September 2019

A person dressed as a caricature of Prime Minister Boris Johnson in a prison uniform stands outside the Supreme Court after it ruled that his decision to suspend Parliament was illegal

5/50 23 September 2019

Thomas Cook aircraft are parked up at Manchester Airport on the day they collapsed after rescue talks failed. A total of 22,000 jobs – including 9,000 in UK – are to be lost following administration. More than 150,000 British holidaymakers need to be brought home, with the government and CAA hiring dozens of charter planes to fly customers home free of charge

6/50 22 September 2019

Fire performer Penella Bee performs before people take part in the North East Skinny Dip at Druridge Bay in Nothumberland, an annual event that marks the Autumn Equinox and raises money for MIND – the Mental Health Charity

7/50 21 September 2019

Protesters gather for a march and rally organised by “The People’s Vote” in Brighton, to call for politicians to give the public a final say referendum on Brexit

8/50 20 September 2019

Protesters in London joined millions across world to demand urgent action to save planet in the largest environmental protest in history

9/50 19 September 2019

Rapper Dave poses with the Mercury Prize: Albums of the Year Award at Apollo

10/50 18 September 2019

A surfer in action during sunrise at Tynemouth on the north east coast

11/50 17 September 2019

Protesters dressed as the Incredible Hulk and Robocop outside the Supreme Court in London where judges are due to consider legal challenges to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s decision to suspend Parliament. The Supreme Court will hear appeals over three days from two separate challenges to the prorogation of Parliament brought in England and Scotland

12/50 16 September 2019

Farmer Tom Hoggard harvests pumpkins at Howe Bridge Farm in Yorkshire, ahead of Halloween

13/50 15 September 2019

Team Europe celebrate winning the Solheim Cup at Gleneagles in Auchterarder, Scotland. Europe won the last three singles matches to claim victory 14½-13½
Sunset at St Mary’s Lighthouse in Whitley Bay

15/50 13 September 2019

Activists from PETA stage a demonstration outside a venue during London Fashion Week in London, Britain

16/50 12 September 2019

Australia’s Marnus Labuschagne attempts to stop a boundary in the fifth Test

17/50 11 September 2019

Storm clouds gather over the pier just off the North East coast at South Shields

18/50 10 September 2019

The peloton rides past the Angel of the North during stage four of the Tour of Britain from Gateshead to Kendal

19/50 9 September 2019

A penny farthing cyclist rides past St. John’s, Smith Square, Westminster, London

20/50 8 September 2019

Australia celebrate the wicket of England’s Craig Overton, which meant they won the fourth test and retained the Ashes

21/50 7 September 2019

Manchester City celebrate after Caroline Weir scored during their Women’s Super League match against Manchester United at Etihad Stadium. The WSL attendance record was smashed with 31,213 people watching the first Manchester derby of Women’s Super League era – nearly six times the previous WSL record

22/50 6 September 2019

A bull bumps into a plain clothes police officer (left) while being walked by Prime Minister Boris Johnson during his visit to Darnford Farm in Banchory near Aberdeen. It coincided with the publication of Lord Bew’s review and an announcement of extra funding for Scottish farmers

23/50 5 September 2019

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon cuts the hair of David Torrance MSP raising £1000 for the charity Maggie’s Centre in Kirkcaldy at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh

24/50 4 September 2019

Australia’s David Warner looks dejected after being dismissed by England’s Stuart Broad during day one of the fourth Ashes Test at Old Trafford in Manchester

25/50 3 September 2019

Anti Brexit demonstrators attend a protest at Parliament Square. Lawmakers returned from their summer recess Tuesday for a pivotal day in British politics as they challenged Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s insistence that the UK leave the European Union on 31 October, even without a withdrawal agreement to cushion the economic blow

26/50 2 September 2019

Set building begins on Waterloo Place in Edinburgh ahead of filming for Fast and Furious 9

27/50 1 September 2019

Members of the Royal Southern Yacht Club and the Island Sailing Club take part during the annual cricket match between the clubs, which takes place on the Bramble Bank sandbank in the middle of the Solent at low tide
Anti-Brexit protesters demonstrate at Whitehall in London

29/50 30 August 2019

One of the iconic ‘Girl with Balloon’ artworks by anonymous street artist Banksy is carried near one of the original locations the artwork appeared at on the Southbank in London

30/50 29 August 2019

The sun rises over the sculpture “The Couple” by artist Sean Henry, at Newbiggin-by-the-sea in Northumberland

31/50 28 August 2019

A person wearing a Boris Johnson ‘head’ digs a grave at the foot of a tombstone during a protest organised by Avaaz and Best for Britain, outside Downing Street in London

32/50 27 August 2019

Nat Lofthouse statue is covered in flags at the University of Bolton Stadium, Bolton

33/50 26 August 2019

Performers take part in Notting Hill Carnival. Nearly one million people were expected to attend Sunday and Monday’s carnival to celebrate Caribbean culture

34/50 25 August 2019

A competitor swims in the World Bog Snorkelling Championships in Llanwryd Wells, Powys

35/50 24 August 2019

People flock to Bournemouth beach as a heatwave spells potentially record high temperatures for the bank holiday weekend

36/50 23 August 2019

Fans of Bury FC deliver a symbolic coffin to the club’s home at Gigg Lane as the continuation of their membership to the football league lies in doubt. The club will lose their membership at midnight if they don’t find a buyer or prove that they have the means to pay off their debts

37/50 22 August 2019

Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn and Shadow DEFRA Secretary Sue Hayman during a visit to Rakefoot Farm, Castlerigg, Keswick where they are highlighting the danger of a No Deal Brexit to sheep farmers

38/50 21 August 2019

Festival goers walk along the towpath of the River Thames as they arrive for the Reading Festival at Richfield Avenue

39/50 20 August 2019

Police officers gather to pay their respects at the scene near Ufton Lane, where Thames Valley Police officer PC Andrew Harper, 28, died on Thursday. Jed Foster, 20, has appeared at Reading Magristrates’ Court where denied any involvement with the murder

40/50 19 August 2019

A fire that broke out at the site of Village Bakery on Coed Aben Road, Wrexham Industrial Estate in Wales

41/50 18 August 2019

England fielders crowd Pat Cummins as he see’s out the final over during day five of the second Ashes Test match against Australia at Lord’s Cricket Ground. The test ended in a draw

42/50 17 August 2019

Glew (centre) and Monroe Adams (right) pose for a selfie with a member of the public outside DragWorld London 2019, Europe’s largest drag convention, featuring drag stars from the US and UK during a two-day event at Olympia, London

43/50 16 August 2019

A grey seal with fishing net tangled around its neck amongst the colony on the beach at Horsey in Norfolk, as RSPCA data show the number of animals affected by plastic litter is at an all-time high, with incidents increasing by 22% in just four years

44/50 15 August 2019

A flock of sheep are herded past government buildings in London by members of Farmers for a People’s Vote, a campaign group

45/50 14 August 2019

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg speaks during a press conference at the Mayflower Marina in Plymouth, southwest England, on August 14, 2019, ahead of her journey across the Atlantic to New York, aboard the Malizia II IMOCA class sailing yacht, where she will attend the UN Climate Action Summit next month. – A year after her school strike made her a figurehead for climate activists, Greta Thunberg believes her uncompromising message about global warming is getting through — even if action remains thin on the ground. The 16-year-old Swede, who sets sail for New York this week to take her message to the United States, has been a target for abuse but sees that as proof she is having an effect

46/50 12 August 2019

A hare runs on a moor near Ripon, North Yorkshire

47/50 11 August 2019

Britain’s Jamie Chadwick wins first-ever W Series title. She pocketed a prize of £410,000 and, having been signed as a development driver for Williams, she keeps up her hopes of making it into Formula One

48/50 10 August 2019

People gather on the beach as a raft carrying people dressed as clowns heads to shore during the annual Whitby Regatta in Whitby, England. At over 170 years old, the Whitby Regatta is thought to be the oldest sea regatta on the northeast coast of England and draws thousands of visitors each year

49/50 9 August 2019

Burryman Andrew Taylor, gets a nip of whisky using a straw, from resident Mary Hamblin, 82, as he parades through the town of South Queensferry, near Edinburgh, encased in burrs. The parade takes place on the second Friday of August each year and although the exact meaning of this tradition has been lost through the years it is thought to have begun in the 17th Century. The tradition is believed to bring good luck to the towns people if they give him whisky offered through a straw or a donation of money

50/50 8 August 2019

A mosque is seen amongst residential housing from the air during a mass take off at the annual Bristol hot air balloon festival in Bristol

1/50 27 September 2019

Gallery assistants pose with an artwork entitled ‘Devolved Parliament’ by British artist Banksy, during a press view in London ahead of Sotheby’s contemporary art sale, as part of the Frieze Art Fair

2/50 26 September 2019

England’s Jonathan Joseph is tackled by United State’s Marcel Brache during their group match at the Rugby World Cup in Japan. England scored seven tries on their way to winning 45-7

3/50 25 September 2019

Tributes for former Rangers player Fernando Ricksen at Ibrox Stadium. Today, the funeral procession will pass Ibrox Stadium before making the journey to Wellington Church

4/50 24 September 2019

A person dressed as a caricature of Prime Minister Boris Johnson in a prison uniform stands outside the Supreme Court after it ruled that his decision to suspend Parliament was illegal

5/50 23 September 2019

Thomas Cook aircraft are parked up at Manchester Airport on the day they collapsed after rescue talks failed. A total of 22,000 jobs – including 9,000 in UK – are to be lost following administration. More than 150,000 British holidaymakers need to be brought home, with the government and CAA hiring dozens of charter planes to fly customers home free of charge

6/50 22 September 2019

Fire performer Penella Bee performs before people take part in the North East Skinny Dip at Druridge Bay in Nothumberland, an annual event that marks the Autumn Equinox and raises money for MIND – the Mental Health Charity

7/50 21 September 2019

Protesters gather for a march and rally organised by “The People’s Vote” in Brighton, to call for politicians to give the public a final say referendum on Brexit

8/50 20 September 2019

Protesters in London joined millions across world to demand urgent action to save planet in the largest environmental protest in history

9/50 19 September 2019

Rapper Dave poses with the Mercury Prize: Albums of the Year Award at Apollo

10/50 18 September 2019

A surfer in action during sunrise at Tynemouth on the north east coast

11/50 17 September 2019

Protesters dressed as the Incredible Hulk and Robocop outside the Supreme Court in London where judges are due to consider legal challenges to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s decision to suspend Parliament. The Supreme Court will hear appeals over three days from two separate challenges to the prorogation of Parliament brought in England and Scotland

12/50 16 September 2019

Farmer Tom Hoggard harvests pumpkins at Howe Bridge Farm in Yorkshire, ahead of Halloween

13/50 15 September 2019

Team Europe celebrate winning the Solheim Cup at Gleneagles in Auchterarder, Scotland. Europe won the last three singles matches to claim victory 14½-13½
Sunset at St Mary’s Lighthouse in Whitley Bay

15/50 13 September 2019

Activists from PETA stage a demonstration outside a venue during London Fashion Week in London, Britain

16/50 12 September 2019

Australia’s Marnus Labuschagne attempts to stop a boundary in the fifth Test

17/50 11 September 2019

Storm clouds gather over the pier just off the North East coast at South Shields

18/50 10 September 2019

The peloton rides past the Angel of the North during stage four of the Tour of Britain from Gateshead to Kendal

19/50 9 September 2019

A penny farthing cyclist rides past St. John’s, Smith Square, Westminster, London

20/50 8 September 2019

Australia celebrate the wicket of England’s Craig Overton, which meant they won the fourth test and retained the Ashes

21/50 7 September 2019

Manchester City celebrate after Caroline Weir scored during their Women’s Super League match against Manchester United at Etihad Stadium. The WSL attendance record was smashed with 31,213 people watching the first Manchester derby of Women’s Super League era – nearly six times the previous WSL record

22/50 6 September 2019

A bull bumps into a plain clothes police officer (left) while being walked by Prime Minister Boris Johnson during his visit to Darnford Farm in Banchory near Aberdeen. It coincided with the publication of Lord Bew’s review and an announcement of extra funding for Scottish farmers

23/50 5 September 2019

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon cuts the hair of David Torrance MSP raising £1000 for the charity Maggie’s Centre in Kirkcaldy at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh

24/50 4 September 2019

Australia’s David Warner looks dejected after being dismissed by England’s Stuart Broad during day one of the fourth Ashes Test at Old Trafford in Manchester

25/50 3 September 2019

Anti Brexit demonstrators attend a protest at Parliament Square. Lawmakers returned from their summer recess Tuesday for a pivotal day in British politics as they challenged Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s insistence that the UK leave the European Union on 31 October, even without a withdrawal agreement to cushion the economic blow

26/50 2 September 2019

Set building begins on Waterloo Place in Edinburgh ahead of filming for Fast and Furious 9

27/50 1 September 2019

Members of the Royal Southern Yacht Club and the Island Sailing Club take part during the annual cricket match between the clubs, which takes place on the Bramble Bank sandbank in the middle of the Solent at low tide
Anti-Brexit protesters demonstrate at Whitehall in London

29/50 30 August 2019

One of the iconic ‘Girl with Balloon’ artworks by anonymous street artist Banksy is carried near one of the original locations the artwork appeared at on the Southbank in London

30/50 29 August 2019

The sun rises over the sculpture “The Couple” by artist Sean Henry, at Newbiggin-by-the-sea in Northumberland

31/50 28 August 2019

A person wearing a Boris Johnson ‘head’ digs a grave at the foot of a tombstone during a protest organised by Avaaz and Best for Britain, outside Downing Street in London

32/50 27 August 2019

Nat Lofthouse statue is covered in flags at the University of Bolton Stadium, Bolton

33/50 26 August 2019

Performers take part in Notting Hill Carnival. Nearly one million people were expected to attend Sunday and Monday’s carnival to celebrate Caribbean culture

34/50 25 August 2019

A competitor swims in the World Bog Snorkelling Championships in Llanwryd Wells, Powys

35/50 24 August 2019

People flock to Bournemouth beach as a heatwave spells potentially record high temperatures for the bank holiday weekend

36/50 23 August 2019

Fans of Bury FC deliver a symbolic coffin to the club’s home at Gigg Lane as the continuation of their membership to the football league lies in doubt. The club will lose their membership at midnight if they don’t find a buyer or prove that they have the means to pay off their debts

37/50 22 August 2019

Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn and Shadow DEFRA Secretary Sue Hayman during a visit to Rakefoot Farm, Castlerigg, Keswick where they are highlighting the danger of a No Deal Brexit to sheep farmers

38/50 21 August 2019

Festival goers walk along the towpath of the River Thames as they arrive for the Reading Festival at Richfield Avenue

39/50 20 August 2019

Police officers gather to pay their respects at the scene near Ufton Lane, where Thames Valley Police officer PC Andrew Harper, 28, died on Thursday. Jed Foster, 20, has appeared at Reading Magristrates’ Court where denied any involvement with the murder

40/50 19 August 2019

A fire that broke out at the site of Village Bakery on Coed Aben Road, Wrexham Industrial Estate in Wales

41/50 18 August 2019

England fielders crowd Pat Cummins as he see’s out the final over during day five of the second Ashes Test match against Australia at Lord’s Cricket Ground. The test ended in a draw

42/50 17 August 2019

Glew (centre) and Monroe Adams (right) pose for a selfie with a member of the public outside DragWorld London 2019, Europe’s largest drag convention, featuring drag stars from the US and UK during a two-day event at Olympia, London

43/50 16 August 2019

A grey seal with fishing net tangled around its neck amongst the colony on the beach at Horsey in Norfolk, as RSPCA data show the number of animals affected by plastic litter is at an all-time high, with incidents increasing by 22% in just four years

44/50 15 August 2019

A flock of sheep are herded past government buildings in London by members of Farmers for a People’s Vote, a campaign group

45/50 14 August 2019

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg speaks during a press conference at the Mayflower Marina in Plymouth, southwest England, on August 14, 2019, ahead of her journey across the Atlantic to New York, aboard the Malizia II IMOCA class sailing yacht, where she will attend the UN Climate Action Summit next month. – A year after her school strike made her a figurehead for climate activists, Greta Thunberg believes her uncompromising message about global warming is getting through — even if action remains thin on the ground. The 16-year-old Swede, who sets sail for New York this week to take her message to the United States, has been a target for abuse but sees that as proof she is having an effect

46/50 12 August 2019

A hare runs on a moor near Ripon, North Yorkshire

47/50 11 August 2019

Britain’s Jamie Chadwick wins first-ever W Series title. She pocketed a prize of £410,000 and, having been signed as a development driver for Williams, she keeps up her hopes of making it into Formula One

48/50 10 August 2019

People gather on the beach as a raft carrying people dressed as clowns heads to shore during the annual Whitby Regatta in Whitby, England. At over 170 years old, the Whitby Regatta is thought to be the oldest sea regatta on the northeast coast of England and draws thousands of visitors each year

49/50 9 August 2019

Burryman Andrew Taylor, gets a nip of whisky using a straw, from resident Mary Hamblin, 82, as he parades through the town of South Queensferry, near Edinburgh, encased in burrs. The parade takes place on the second Friday of August each year and although the exact meaning of this tradition has been lost through the years it is thought to have begun in the 17th Century. The tradition is believed to bring good luck to the towns people if they give him whisky offered through a straw or a donation of money

50/50 8 August 2019

A mosque is seen amongst residential housing from the air during a mass take off at the annual Bristol hot air balloon festival in Bristol

On the other side, Labour has been dragged to the position angry Remainers long demanded – a second referendum with Remain on the ballot. Right on cue, the Lib Dems switch to supporting outright revocation of Article 50. The sudden perceived inadequacy of the policy hard Remainers wanted is striking.

It is not that everyone is waiting to feel betrayed. But if half the voters on each side are impassioned, around a quarter of the voting public is liable to be inflamed by an unfavourable Brexit outcome. That’s a large minority to feel angry and alienated in an electorate – and it cuts across traditional party divides on either side, giving it a lasting destabilising power in British politics.

Consider the response to any of the Brexit outcomes. The pro-Brexit reaction to revocation is easy to imagine. Were Leave to lose a second referendum, its leaders would cry foul and whip up conspiracies over the conduct or terms of the vote. Remainer reaction to the chaos of no deal writes itself.

A hard Brexit deal – out of the customs union and single market – would lead to rapid economic losses. Every subsequent factory closure or round of job cuts would be blamed on the Brexit deal, leading to demands to rejoin the EU on one side – and for an even harder Brexit on the other.

This brings us to soft Brexit – “Norway Plus”, inside the single market and customs union, with ongoing free movement of people, but officially outside the EU. This represents the midpoint of public opinion today. But that midpoint is not where most people stand – polarisation finds few people wanting compromise.

Polling shows soft Brexit to be the least inflammatory outcome – but that is because it hasn’t been on the table since May set her red lines. As a result, Farage and others focused their fire elsewhere. Now Labour is swinging behind free movement, Leave elites are ferociously attacking it. It will not be long before Norway Plus brings a furious response from Brexiters.

This is the problem with Labour’s referendum proposal. Putting Remain against Norway Plus in a vote is technically Remain vs Leave – but Leavers aren’t going to buy it. No matter what Remainers say, Leave voters will just see the continuation of what they oppose – immigration and Brussels laws.

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This is also why the chances of Brexit not happening are currently underpriced. If an election results in an anti-Brexit Commons majority, the post-election government would likely negotiate such a soft Brexit deal that Leave voters would boycott the subsequent referendum, resulting in a Remain win by default that Leavers would simply regard as illegitimate – including if they got back in power.

There are no magic bullet Brexit outcomes that will solve Britain’s divisions. Increased investment in economically struggling areas can help; increased socioeconomic rights and provision will do more to “take back control” than complex constitutional changes.

Politicians should not be bounced into any lasting decision based on the mythical promise that “getting Brexit done” will bring things back to normal. It won’t, especially as leaving the EU is the start of a long and painful process, not the end. The focus should be on the best outcome for the country, both now and in the future, and one that can carry the broadest legitimacy possible.

What does that mean in practice? I do not pretend to have the answer. But one option – should the EU indulge the UK with sufficient time to pull it off – could be to hold a second referendum where the Leave option is created by a citizens’ assembly made up of Leave voters, as a way of undercutting the power of elite cues and giving Leavers some ownership of the process. But safeguards would be needed to protect, for example, the rights of existing migrants and the requirements of the Good Friday Agreement. And the referendum campaign itself may, once again, be a brutally divisive affair.

How did we get here? Forty years of rising regional inequality; decades of media and political hysteria against foreigners and immigrants; ten years of savage austerity; political cultures that reward demonisation, tribalism and sociopathy; and a false sense of national invincibility that keeps crashing into reality.

To put Britain back together, you must take all that apart.