“To be, or not to be: that is the question”, said Hamlet in Shakespeare’s celebrated play, “Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them?” The chemical-weapon poisoning of a former Russian spy in the UK city of Salisbury comes neatly near to the year-point, 29 March 2019, when the UK is to leave the EU, and also to the anticipated re-election of Putin as Russian president. The two dates are not unconnected, Britain beset by a near-paralysis over Brexit and weakened internationally, and Putin’s need to shore up his flagging vote. It thus provides us with a useful litmus test of the viability of Brexit, given that calls for another referendum are growing.
Foreign policy weakness exploited by the enemies of liberalism
Putin timed his (internationally presumed) action against Sergei Skripal for just before his 18 March re-election, a largely stage-managed affair given the suppression of almost all genuine opposition in Russia but one that was suffering from a poor level of public interest. As before, a foreign policy crisis serves nicely to galvanise the electorate.
It was also aimed at a weakened UK given that the latter is approaching near-paralysis over the approach to Brexit and unable to devote head-space to other pressing domestic issues like the state of the NHS, the housing crisis, the prisons crisis, or the massive benefit cuts being introduced in April. As has been argued before, Brexit has weakened the UK’s international clout as the EU now operates largely without the UK being involved and the US under Trump is more concerned with America First and protectionism.
Thus Putin has been able to take advantage of the situation to reinforce the global view that Britain is weak and lacking in credibility. Given that, without real international support, the latter cannot do much in retaliation, the result is likely to reinforce that impression. It also makes the UK look more isolated, and thus split from others in NATO and the EU, and this in turn emphasises the weakness of the West in general. It comes at a time of crisis for the EU in other ways, such as the difficulties Merkel has faced in building a new coalition government in Germany, the populist (and pro-Russian) victory in the Italian general election, renewed instability in the Balkans, or the EU being at odds with Poland over its judicial reforms and the lack of separation of powers with the executive.
There is a geopolitical dimension to Brexit, in that it looks likely to weaken Britain’s international influence, but also to weaken the West in general and the idea of a principled, rules-based, collaborative and humanitarian consensus in the face of the march of authoritarian, zero-sum and nationalist politics globally.
The Wthdrawal Treaty and trade negotiations
Progress on agreeing a deal between the UK and EU has seemingly ground to a halt over Ireland. The EU has signalled that it will make no agreement until the question of the border in Ireland is first agreed. This seems to be an issue that is blocking progress since the Tories’ allies, the DUP, will not agree to an effective border at the Irish sea, to retain as the EU propose a customs union and single market in Ireland, and one of Mrs May’s “red lines” is that the UK is leaving these arrangements by the end of a yet-to-be-agreed transition period in 2020-21. The UK government claim that there can be a frictionless border in Ireland and yet this is rejected by the EU.
The Withdrawal Agreement, “pencilled in” in December 2017, is thus on hold, and this brings nearer the possibility of a “hard Brexit”, a departure without an agreement, a reversion to WTO rules and tariffs on trade between the UK and the EU, and what is generally agreed in expert circles, and in recent economic advice to government, to be a very serious hit to the UK economy.
Parliamentary opposition and a second referendum
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, opposition in Parliament to a hard Brexit is gathering pace. Back in December, moderate Tory MP’s like Dominic Sieve and Anna Soubry combined with almost all of the opposition to defeat the government over the Withdrawal Bill by inserting a clause that the UK could not leave the EU without Parliamentary consent, in other words requiring Parliament’s consent to leave without an agreement under a hard Brexit. Such collaboration has been growing, the result of painstaking behind-the-scenes discussions between MP’s of all parties and led by Chuka Umanna.
It can be easy to misunderstand the position of MP’s on Brexit. There was and remains a pro-Remain majority in Parliament, but since the 2016 referendum the vast majority have felt honour-bound to respect the result. What was not clear in 2016 was what form that result should take, a complete departure from all institutions or like non-members like Norway or Switzerland staying in the customs union or single market. This conundrum was not resolved in 2016.
The Brexiteers are very noisy, demanding and aggressive, but they are a minority. Estimates vary but they probably have a hard core of around 75 MP’s, mainly led by Jacob Rees-Mogg, head of the Brexiteer European Research Group (ERG). They favour a hard Brexit and are pressuring May to keep to her promise that “Brexit means Brexit”. The Tory moderates, Soubry, Sieve, Ken Clarke, Nicky Morgan and others, are favouring a soft Brexit of retaining membership of at least the customs union. There are also too other Tory MP’s who are concerned at the rightward and leaderless drift of the party and the sense of increasing disconnection from other pressing issues referred to above. The cross-party collaboration has continued and it is now looking like there will be a majority to impose remaining in the/a customs union as an amendment to the upcoming Trade Bill. In fact the Tory whips are so fearful of defeat that the debates on the bill have been put back to May.
The upcoming crunch point over Leave
This is where the crunch point could occur, the failure to secure agreement over the Irish question in negotiations and a cross-party push to stay in a customs union. Crucially, this could be when the DUP abandons May to side with her opponents to keep a customs union and the ERG pulls the plug on supporting May.
This would be just after the 3 May 2018 local government elections, where it is anticipated that the Tories will do badly. Many have suggested that if that proves to be the case, the right would move against May and there would be a leadership contest.
At this point all bets are off.
Meanwhile again, calls for a second referendum on the terms of the agreement are growing louder. There are signs that anti-Brexit forces are combining, the latest being a “soft’ Brexit coalition, the Grassroots Coordinating Group (CCG) led by Chuka Umanna. There are other groups who want to remain in the EU, like Best for Britain.
In this situation, a second referendum is a tempting idea, despite accusations of “betrayal” from the hard right. It should not however be assumed that such a strategy would work for Remainers, since there is still a lot of evidence that the UK remains very evenly divided over the issue (see for example this article by the psephology guru, John Curtice).
A new political divide has opened up in British politics, replacing the old idea that the key dividing principle was social class. Now, it appears that Brexit has cemented a divide some time in the making, about values and identity, whether one is “Open” or “Closed” in social, cultural and political terms, which cuts across class and divides different parts of the UK from one another. This is discussed in an article by me here.
Yet, it still leaves everything to play for in this great dividing issue of contemporary British politics, whether you belong to the Leave or Remain tribe, or are in the middle somewhere.
As Hamlet said, it gets existential.