Friday 27 January 2017

The (lack of) consequences of the Supreme Court judgment

This week has been an eventful, but strangely inconsequential, one for Brexit. Eventful because the Supreme Court upheld the judgment that parliament, rather than the government, must trigger Lisbon Article 50, leading to the publication of a draft Bill to enable that. Inconsequential because it currently seems almost inconceivable that parliament will not ratify it. There might be some amendments trying to constrain what the government can do, and there might be some outright opposition in the House of Lords. But it is highly unlikely that Brexit will be either delayed or significantly shaped by parliament, still less rejected.

Last October I posted that parliament seemed to be prepared to assert itself in opposition to Brexit, but this now seems a forlorn hope. It’s worth recalling that, indeed, parliament is – or at least was - opposed to Brexit. If, rather than having a Referendum, there had been a parliamentary vote in June remain would have resoundingly won, and would have won on the basis of majority support within both major parties. So why it is now a forlorn hope that that same parliament will reject Brexit or even oppose the hard Brexit that the government have decided on?

It isn’t, so far as I know, that MPs have changed their minds. The majority of them still realise that Brexit will be a disaster for Britain. But the rhetoric – fuelled by the Brexit media – that ‘the people have spoken’ has become almost unassailable. For Tory remainers, it has been made clear that opposing Brexit will be regarded as an act of gross disloyalty, and it seems likely that only veteran (and soon to retire) Europhile grandee Ken Clarke will oppose the Lisbon 50 Bill. That this entails the bizarre spectacle of Tories abandoning their traditional interest groups (and funders) in business and the City seems to matter not at all to them (nor that 40% of habitual Tory voters voted remain). And that Tory Brexiters have never been remotely bothered about party loyalty does not seem to have inspired an equal ruthlessness amongst the Tory remainers.

So the Tory Party, which has long been deeply divided over Europe, is shaping up to be united behind Brexit. Meanwhile the Labour Party has newly re-opened some old divisions that date back to the 1970s. Since then (or at least since 1983) they have been broadly pro-EU but Jeremy Corbyn is a throwback to the 1970s Bennite mantra of the EU as a capitalist club to be rejected in favour of socialism in one country. No matter that the world has moved on, and that globalization of capital demands trans-national politics and regulation. Hence Corbyn’s lukewarm and grudging support for the remain campaign.

Now, although the Labour position is often confused and contradictory, Corbyn is insisting that his MPs vote to support the triggering of Article 50. His view of what Labour should be pushing for from Brexit – the only real difference from the government’s plan being continuation of labour and environmental standards – is completely absurd in the context of a Tory government advocating a hard Brexit that is all but certain to tear such things up. So if Labour do not oppose Brexit hook, line and sinker they certainly won’t get a Brexit that upholds labour and environmental standards. Many on the Left realised in the 1980s that EU membership offered, for the UK in particular, the best hope of keeping some form of social democracy; which is also why hardcore Thatcherite Tories hated the EU. Now that the latter have their way, it is crazy to think that Brexit is going to keep any of the social democracy of the EU under the aegis of a Brexit deal.

So Corbyn is putting his MPs in an impossible position in pursuit of an unachievable goal (for more detailed analysis of Corbyn’s position on the Article 50 vote, see this insightful article by Ian Dunt on On the core political issue of the day, Labour could hardly have a more disastrous leader than Jeremy Corbyn, but the New Labour segment of the parliamentary party is scarcely less disastrous in its capitulation to the populist hostility to immigration. In essence, Labour’s leadership is hostile to the single market but pro-free movement of people, whilst much of its parliamentary party is pro-single market but now cautious about free movement of people.

This is compounded by the widely accepted narrative that Labour MPs who oppose Brexit will be punished by their constituency electorates if they continue that opposition because in many traditional Labour heartland constituencies in the English regions the vote was, resoundingly, to leave. This analysis is very deeply flawed. Despite Corbyn’s lukewarm support, 65% of habitual Labour voters voted to remain in the EU. In Labour 'leave' constituencies, many who voted leave would never have voted Labour anyway, and many do not normally vote at all. And in any case, EU membership has never been a top issue for most voters and there is no reason to think that it will be so in a future general election, even for those who voted leave in the referendum. So there is almost certainly far more latitude for Labour MPs, even in leave constituencies, than current received wisdom suggests. However, precisely because it is received wisdom, it seems likely that the only Labour MPs who will oppose Brexit are those whose constituencies voted remain. There are quite a few of those, especially in London, but even with SNP and LibDem (such as it is) support it won’t be enough to make parliament reject the Lisbon 50 Bill, or even to amend it in any significant way.

The huge irony in all this – apart from the even huger one that a campaign based centrally on the concept of parliamentary sovereignty is enacting a policy that parliament is opposed to – is that Theresa May has shown herself to have a strange combination of stubborn resolve and capitulation during her months as Prime Minister. This was first obvious not in relation to Brexit but over the Chinese investment in the Hinkley Point nuclear power station. Initially, May seemed to oppose it and called for a review of the plan but under pressure went ahead with it. So with Brexit. For months she resolutely said that revealing her plans would be to provide a ‘running commentary’ and that she would never do it; under pressure, she did just that last week. Then, this week, again under pressure, having said she would not do so she conceded that there would be a White Paper on Brexit.

So, under pressure, May is flexible and thus it is not surprising that with all the hardest pressure coming from the fanatically anti-EU wing of her party she has largely pursued a hard Brexit policy. The Supreme Court judgment opened up a huge potential for pressure to be put in the other direction. That this seems unlikely to be made use of is down to the cowed and cowardly inaction of Tory remainer MPs and the incompetence and incoherence of the Labour Party. It bears repeating yet again that there is no majority in parliament for Brexit, still less for hard Brexit; possibly no majority, now, in the country for Brexit and almost certainly not for hard Brexit. And, yet, despite this week’s events, hard Brexit is now a near inevitability.

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