The slow motion train crash that is Brexit is gradually speeding up as the deadline for an agreement with the EU gets closer and yet the political situation in the UK remains deadlocked. May’s government has, after months of wrangling between ministers, finally produced a White Paper of an outline of a proposal for a trade negotiation with the EU, only to see it widely criticised as either unworkable or giving too much or too little away. Several Brexiters have resigned, including heavyweights Boris Johnson and David Davis. May will now attempt to negotiate with the EU while trying to face down what are now her Brexiter opponents, not a promising position to be in for a major change in the UK’s constitutional and trading arrangements. The situation has become unprecedented, volatile and highly unpredictable.
The emergence of a proposed deal with the EU
The 2016 referendum produced, by a very narrow margin, approval for Britain to leave the EU, without any specific proposal as to how that major constitutional and trading change would be implemented or in what form. May then held a general election in 2017 as a result of which the Conservative Government lost its small majority and has to rely on the voting support of the Northern Irish Protestant party, the DUP. There is therefore no mandate for a specific proposal for Britain to leave the EU or a strong and widespread political base. Therein lies the conundrum facing UK politicians.
Having agreed most of a Withdrawal Agreement with the EU by December 2017, May has attempted to agree a trading agreement for future relations with the EU with her ministers, and has encountered months of wrangling between her “soft” and “hard” Brexit people. In Parliament, the powerful hard Brexit wing of the Tories have largely held back. Finally an agreed outline was largely endorsed at Chequers on 3 July 2018, but several ministers then resigned and the Brexiter backbenchers led by Jacob Rees-Mogg (JRM) of the European Research Group (ERG) faction denounced the deal.
It would seem that May, who in reality now leads negotiations with her senior official Oliver Robbins, has finally opted for a hybid scheme for trade with the EU that has echoes of that enjoyed by Switzerland, called a Facilitated Customs Arrangement. It is being suggested that it won’t survive first contact with the EU and there will be some deal closer to that of the EEA, crosing several of May’s “red lines”.
What is key for this blog is that May is going for a version of a “soft” Brexit, with some ties to the EU that are unacceptable to the ERG wing of her party, who want at least something closer to a Canada-style Free Trade deal with the EU and a clean break from its rules and institutions. They argue that if the EU refuse, Britain should walk away with no agreement and revert to WTO rules. Many others see this solutions as very damaging to the British economy, including a majority in Parliament.
May at Chequers insisted on a restoration of Collective Responsibility after a period of unseemly open dissension amongst ministers. Under the constitutional doctrine of Collective Responsibility, all ministers have to support government policy or resign. Having restored discipline in her government, the dissenting ministers, Johnson and Davis, chose to resign.
Political deadlock continues at Westminster
It may be, in this very unpredictable situation, that May has opted at long last to face down the Brexiter wing of the Tory party. This wing has harried party leaders and Prime Ministers since John Major, and the latter have repeatedly given way under pressure, until now. There are signs that the majority of the Parliamentary party are increasingly concerned at party division and the enormity of the crisis the country is facing. May is not the best leader they have got but there is no credible successor and safety and survival probably dictates that they should support her – for now.
However, the ERG led by JRM have now pledged to carry out guerrilla opposition in Parliament and to vote against May’s bills to implement her proposals. This undermines her precarious majority.
There is probably a “soft” Brexit majority in Parliament. Revolts against May’s bills have seen a right to a Parliamentary vote on a deal with the EU inserted into legislation, although there is doubt as to how realistic this would be in a crisis situation just before departure. Yet the fact that such a revolt by moderate, pro-EU Tories in alliance with the vast majority of the multi-party opposition was successful suggests that it could be repeated. There is now a working collaboration in favour of a soft Brexit between Chuka Umanna of Labour and people like Morgan, Soubry and Grieve of the pro-EU Tories. The difficulty here is that there is also a competing pro-Brexit minority in the Labour party and the leader, Corbyn, is a long-term Eurosceptic.
Yet, while there is a “soft” Brexit majority, it is not one that is stable. Labour are unlikely to vote to keep May in power, at least under Corbyn, since there is party advantage to be gained in opposition. The SNP are trying to use the situation to harry May too, from the position that the Tories are ignoring Scottish interests and imposing a deal on them. An attempt by the cross-party alliance to insert a “fail-safe” clause into the Withdrawal Bill to stop a last-minute hard Brexit recently failed. Not enough rebel Tories more than balanced out pro-Brexit Labour votes.
A deadly balance of political forces
We now have three complex theatres: (1) May’s government, who were bitterly divided but upon whom an uneasy calm has descended, with her remaining Brexit ministers like Gove and Fox supporting the white paper negotiating position. If anything the former Remainers are now stronger. (2) Parliament, in which no grouping has as yet a decisive advantage, but there is the potential but unproven majority for a soft Brexit. (3) The EU, where the Commission continues to drive negotiations, when they happen, and to sustain their red lines of protecting the Four Freedoms. However there have been signs of pressure from some governments for more flexibility and there are some countries who stand to be hit hard by a no-deal Brexit.
Right now May is likely to attempt negotiations with the EU on the basis of her white paper and try to steer through her remaining Brexit legislation. The EU are very likely to resist her white paper and she is thought likely to make further compromises on the customs union, single market, the European Court of Justice and other areas. Such compromises will very likely increase the opposition from Brexiters and make it even harder to get her legislation through.
She is therefore likely to be forced closer to the exit day of 29 March 2018 without a deal, which is probably what the hard Brexit wing want.
What is going to happen? We really don’t know but the clock is ticking louder
At that point, all bets are off. What could happen? It is really important to ask this question, since Britain is facing an unprecedented crisis, a complete political deadlock and a ticking time bomb.
Here a some pointers.
May could be challenged by a party revolt. The most likely is a challenge to unseat her as leader, with Johnson or JRM as her opponent. This is at present thought unlikely since enough MP’s would vote for her to prevent the election going to the pro-Brexit party members under party rules. If things get worse, such as a big climb-down with the EU, this could change. However it would take time, which the UK doesn’t have
The EU could resist the UK proposals and refuse a deal, or the UK could refuse to compromise further. This would precipitate a no-deal exit, but we’re told Parliament won’t agree to that. But see the points above about how untested this scenario is.
The government could resign. What then?
There could be a general election. But to have that, Parliament under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act (2011) must vote for one by a two-thirds majority, which they might or might not do. An election might return a similar Parliament with a similar balance of forces and no decisive advantage for one side or the other. Polls are showing a 5 point lead for Remain although Labour and Conservative are level-pegging in terms of support. Yet as seen in recent elections the electorate has become highly volatile.
There could be an extension to the Article 50 deadline if everybody agreed and the Withdrawal Act amended. But would that not simply prolong the agony?
There could be a coalition government of the pro-EU majority. This would need to be a cross-party one to work, both pro-EU Tories and moderate Labour and with the SNP and other smaller parties. Both major parties would need to split for this to happen. It has happened before, to an extent. At the height of the Depression in 1931, Ramsay MacDonald resigned as a Labour Prime Minister and returned as the PM of a coalition National Government of some Labour MPs, Tories and Liberals to steer through the cuts deemed necessary to stop the run on Sterling. Labour never forgave him.
There could be a second referendum, which is being campaigned for by many groups, but we don’t have a deal yet to vote on, and if Remain was one of the options on the ballot paper there would need to be some concrete Leave proposal that will stick as an alternative.
Britain is facing an unprecedented situation which is testing her political system, her economy and her role in the world as never before. One might be tempted to speculate that the UK’s very survival is at stake. However, historically, a characteristic British character can come into play, the tendency to “knuckle down” and “grim it out”, Churchill-like.