The question must be, what now for the Brexit project? We are now entering a period of maximum uncertainty, with no clear option commanding a majority in Parliament, let alone the country. This will test the ability of politicians to compromise when the desire is to fight to the last for one’s viewpoint. Pragmatism now needs to trump ideology, but one wonders if today’s Populist ideologues that have established a near-stranglehold have that within them.
A Prime Minister in power but without power
Theresa May yesterday suffered the humiliation of the worst Parliamentary defeat in a very long time, by 230 votes. She is still there because the Tories and the DUP will unite to keep her there, despite their divisions. It’s an extraordinary situation. Normally a PM who suffered such a defeat would resign, but this is no normal time. We have a PM with the responsibility but not the power of office.
Exercising influence rather than power is now the essence of the game. She has had to move from being one who initiates and directs policy to one who consults, negotiates and seeks agreement from a range of forces, not a style that comes naturally to one who keeps her cards close to her chest and is known for her resilience and indeed obstinacy in the face of opposition. Compromise does not come easily to her, and she has stuck doggedly to her “red lines” such as on freedom of movement, but that skill is what she is now being called upon the exercise. She is however the Houdini of British politics, somehow escaping each time from whatever constraints have been placed on her, and she may still snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, hard though that might be to imagine.
The No Confidence farce
Today, she will go through the charade of the No Confidence motion that she announced upon her defeat, to upstage Corbyn. It is a charade since, as stated, she still retains a majority on the almost all-consuming issue of keeping Corbyn out of power. Corbyn is already under massive pressure from Labour groups like Another Europe is Possible to move on to campaign for a second referendum (Ref2) if the No Confidence motion is defeated. As a left-wing Brexiter leading a Remain party he can and will however hide behind the Labour motion painstaking agreed at last year’s party conference to put all options on the table “including a second referendum”. It will remain to be seen if he finally opts for Ref2 as he has shown great skill at such evasion, in the hard Left Bennite faction’s tradition of Euroscepticism. As with Mrs May, Labour too has a leader who evades what most of his party wants.
Reviewing the options yet again
We will very likely now go through a period in which the Brexit options other than Mrs May’s painstakingly negotiated deal are explored. One might be tempted to ask why this was not done earlier, and one might be drawn back to the above comments on Mrs May’s style of leadership and her lack of political realism.
The suggestion is that May needs to look at “softer” Brexit options. Those that seem to carry most support are variations of the EEA association with the EU or membership of a permanent customs union, both of which are not far from Labour’s position. The obstacle to the former is a perceived lack of control over immigration, one of May’s red lines as we’ve seen, and the other EEA members are understandably not wanting the UK to join them. Can you blame them! The latter would resolve the issue of the Irish border between north and south and preserve the Good Friday Agreement. Both would keep Britain tied to the EU, as was the problem with May’s defeated deal. The No Deal Brexit armageddon option in still there, but its ERG champions were constrained last week by the Grieve amendments designed to stop a no deal and the Tory rebellion that helped defeat May yesterday shows the limit of their support, around 113 MPs (though a number of those would not be Brexiters).
Lurking in the background we have the Grieve cross-party alliance that threatens to take over control of the Brexit process from May, and Grieve spoke in favour of Ref2 yesterday. This option is where the House of Commons Standing Orders would be amended to allow MPs other than just the government to initiate legislation. This major change, with Constitutional implications, would enable the cross-party alliance to wrest control from May, to truly “take back control”. This could then rule out a No Deal Brexit, as many are calling for, and potentially develop a negotiated solution on the lines already stated, and postpone Article 50 to give time for an alternative outcome.
A cross-party agreed solution of some kind has to happen, since everything is so splintered and government is unable to proceed.
The Second Referendum option
Also lurking, but getting louder and more insistent is Ref2. The People’s Vote campaign has been very effective at building support in the country and among MPs for this way forward.
It does not yet however command majority support among MPs. Corbyn and May both oppose it, as do hard Brexiters. Many other MPs express various concerns, such as that it might be seen in the country as a “denial of democracy” since “the people have spoken” in the first referendum, or that it was cause massive and unacceptable unrest and instability, or that deciding what the question or questions should be would be someting that could prove impossible to resolve, or that Britain might end up being hoodwinked by the Leave campaign and its hidden supporters once again. Set against that, more and more politicians are now saying that this is what must happen, since Parliament is so divided, and that we already have major instability and that democracy should not yield to threats, even from the likes of Mr Farage and his Leave means Leave No Deal Brexit campaign.
The role of the EU
May will almost certainly have to ask for an extension to Article 50, since there is now clearly not enough time for any Brexit legislation to be passed, even if it could be agreed upon. If anything, the request would be for more time to find an agreed solution. This could very well come up against a very powerful brick wall. The EU have agreed a deal and are opposed to more negotiations. As time is now so short, and a NO Deal Brexit would hit the UK hardest, they now hold all the cards and therefore any extension to Article 50 will almost certainly come with strings attached from the EU. “With what purpose?” they will ask. “More can-kicking time? No. You need to make up your minds. Which is it to be?”
Which brings us back to Ref2. We could of course have a general election, but that is thought likely to solve nothing since it would return the same divided group of parties, as things stand. Ref2 would hand the conundrum back to “the people”, with definite decision.
One is still left with the nagging question, how much longer can this go on? The answer might, for a very long time, in some form. What we have here is a massive new divide in British politics, one which could even break the country up.