The turmoil that is Brexit continues but still with no clear way forward emerging. In effect there is political deadlock in Parliament and no political option has a clear majority. This division and confusion is replicated amongst journalists, who offer various solutions but no consensus, and the public, as can be seen in confusing opinion polls. Negotiations with the EU resume tomorrow on a proposal that most people already are sceptical can secure agreement with the EU or with Parliament. Meanwhile the deadline of 29 March 2016 for Brexit gets ever closer. Attention is already turning to what happens next. What will unlock this deadlock?
High drama in Parliament
The vote yesterday on the Trade Bill report stage was high drama. Theresa May had earlier caved into the hard Brexit ERG Tory faction and allowed their wrecking amendment that customs could not be collected on behalf of the EU, as proposed in her White Paper last week, unless the EU reciprocated, which it is thought very unlikely they will agree to. Thus her plan already looks dead in the water. The pro-EU Tories were furious, since they had held off with their own amendments in order to support her seeming “soft” Brexit line. Now they came back with an amendment to keep Britain in the customs union. This was narrowly defeated. Now the promise that the pro-EU Tories could ally with the opposition and force a soft Brexit is suddenly looking doubtful.
Power has shifted back to the hard Brexiters, who now seem to be able to threaten May at will and force her to their will. Yet, their numbers are probably around 80. Moreover their rumoured challenge to her leadership in a leadership contest has not yet mustered the 48 votes needed. Thus while their option of a hard Brexit, based loosely on a Canada-style free trade agreement or a no-deal Brexit and massive economic disruption, both look like they haven’t got Parliamentary support, they can at least block other options and thus bring the UK closer to Brexit with no agreement and thus to a no-deal exit.
May is now probably able to stagger through to the long Parliamentary summer recess next week and can conduct negotiations with the EU without Parliament breathing down her neck. Increasingly May is likely to find she cannot move forward with the EU unless she compromises. Pundits suggest that there are really only two options, a Canada-style deal, which can only be discussed when the UK formally leaves, and a Norway-style option, where the UK stays in the customs union or single market, the latter being unacceptable to the Tory ultras. In the end she is likely to have to compromise to get a deal, but is at present unlikely to get any compromise deal through Parliament.
Polling and a general election
Could there be a general election? In the real world outside Westminster, opinion polls give no sure way forward. The latest for the Observer gave Labour a 4% lead, but analysis shows that this is due to a shift from the Tories to UKIP of Leave voters unhappy with May’s soft Brexit proposals. The Labour lead is too small in these volatile times. The psephologist Sir John Curtice, writing in his blog, thinks that May is under pressure from her Leave supporters in the country. Rob Ford, one of the authors of a leading study of UKIP, has cautioned that the electorate is very volatile and can easily switch sides. YouGov say that there is still not enough evidence of a potential shift that would win or lose the Tories a snap election.
This makes resorting to an election to break the deadlock at present unlikely to get a result. It is thought that a similarly divided Parliament would be re-elected.
A “people’s vote”
Increasingly politicians are calling for a “People’s Vote” (a second referendum in all but name), which must be an increasingly tempting option to break the deadlock. There could be three options on the ballot paper, no deal, as mooted by the ERG faction, a soft Brexit compromise agreed with Brussels (if that were possible, a big “if”), or Remain in the EU. Polls on this scenario have also been confusing, with indications that the Leave-Remain divide is still nearly evenly balanced, as can be seen in Curtice’s blog above. Remain have a small lead, depending on whichever poll you look at. It is probably still too close to call. However strictly speaking referendums are advisory.
A government of national unity
In the end Parliament has to decide. This is where recent calls, from Anna Soubry and others, for a government of national unity can also seem a tempting solution. That is, if enough moderate Tories and Labour can be torn away from their party loyalties. For the Tories, memories of their splits in 1846 over the Corn Laws, or 1905 over Tariff Reform, or Labour in 1931 when Ramsay MacDonald split with his party to lead the National Government, are both serious deterrents. Up till now, when it has come down to it, the pro-EU Tories have backed away from voting against May. It was rumoured that yesterday she threatened them with a confidence motion.
Something has to give
Perhaps however, the ticking of the clock will concentrate minds wonderfully. Something has to give. This is an unprecedented national crisis, the worst the UK has faced since the Second World War. As can be seen on the links above, polls show that voters are opposed to a no-deal Brexit. The implications are too awful. However something has to happen to break the deadlock. Nobody yet knows what that will be. A scary prospect.