Friday 21 April 2017

The Brexit election: ultras beware?

Like most political surprises, the decision to call a general election already seems entirely predictable if not inevitable. It is not just the irresistible prospect of smashing the Labour Party whilst it is in chaos, it is also the possibility of killing off the UKIP threat that has haunted the Tory party for years. The latter, in fact, is one obvious dividend for Theresa May’s Damascene embrace of the hard Brexit cause. And of course a fresh election would free the government of the 2015 manifesto pledges which place so many constraints on fiscal policy.

What is less obvious is how the election relates to the Prime Minister’s overall Brexit strategy. Her stated aim of overcoming parliamentary opposition to Brexit is manifestly absurd. There has been very little such opposition and the government has easily overcome it. The sources of that opposition in the Commons, the SNP and the LibDems, will be likely to remain or even possibly to increase as a result of the election. The House of Lords might be slightly less willing to use what limited power it has in the aftermath of a general election, but as the Article 50 vote showed it was in any case reluctant to do so. As for Labour, their position insofar as it can be understood at all, seems to be identical to May’s in terms of leaving the single market and the customs union and, certainly, to present no challenge to the government at all.

Nevertheless, many Tory politicians as well as the Brexit press seem happy to parrot the line that what is in prospect is the crushing of Brexit ‘saboteurs’ and the ‘silencing’ of dissent. And, no doubt, this latest grotesque outbreak of what I have called elsewhere Brexit McCarthyism would appeal to the PM if it were likely to be successful. Her basilisk-like appearance during the House of Lords debate is testimony to that, as is the extraordinary and unnecessary length she went to in attempting to avoid an A50 vote. But she must be aware that the reasons she has given for the election don’t make any sense in terms of Brexit opposition. Instead, it’s the things that she can’t say that make her decision explicable.

As with so much else in the story of Brexit, what is at stake is the internal management of the Tory party’s longstanding splits on Europe. The smallness of the majority makes these, rather than the opposition parties, the problem. And that problem lies not with the Tory remainers, who have failed to win any concessions and been routed already, but with the ultra Brexiters. May has found, as did Cameron before her, that they cannot be appeased. Once, they just wanted to leave the EU but stay in the single market. But on winning the referendum that was not enough. Thus May embraced the hard Brexit of leaving the single market and seeking a trade deal but now finds that the ultras are pushing for no deal at all.

More specifically, ever since the White Paper was published I have thought that May’s Brexit strategy would in due course run into problems with the ultras. As I wrote at the time, the plan seems to be to re-create by different means (and at great expense) many features of the single market, and since then even the commitments on immigration seem to have been softened. Moreover, May now seems belatedly to have realised that there will have to be some form of transitional period between leaving the EU at the end of the two year A50 period and the beginning of any new deal, and to have accepted that the EU will not enter into parallel ‘exit and future’ talks. The ultras have been muted about this so far, but when the negotiations begin – especially as the first item is likely to be the exit bill – this will not last. They will then start pushing hard for the ‘no deal’ scenario that May once also entertained but has now apparently retreated from, presumably having realised that it would be an economic doomsday for Britain.

So the (for May and the Brexit press) unsayable explanation of the election is to undercut the ultras before they can undercut the government. Having campaigned and presumably won an election on the basis of the White Paper plan and not the ‘clean Brexit’ (aka ‘no deal’) which UKIP will campaign on, the ultras will find it harder to oppose May when she pursues that plan. And if, as expected, she has an increased majority then it will be difficult for them to succeed if they do try to oppose her. That assumes that the new Tory MPs are not also ultras but even if they are, junior and ambitious MPs are much easier to control than the old salt veterans of the Maastricht debates, especially by a newly installed, dominant and, reputedly, loyalty-obsessed PM.

This interpretation of what the election means is shared by many within the EU and also within financial markets, who believe it makes a softer Brexit more likely. These terms are relative, of course, in that ‘softer Brexit’ now means what used to be called hard Brexit, but it is softer than the ultra-Brexit position. This is why the pound, which has directly tracked every soft versus hard signal since last June, rose after the election was announced.

None of this is good news, except in the limited sense that indicates that May is trying to avoid the very worst case scenario that the ultra-Brexiters would force on her if they could. This seems consistent with the more general sense in recent weeks that May (and David Davis) are getting more realistic about the immense difficulties and dangers of Brexit. The plan – which the EU may or may not go along with – is a fudge which will leave both committed remainers and leavers dissatisfied but which may well be sufficient to keep the Tory party together and to satisfy enough of the electorate that Brexit is being pursued in a way which they can support or at least live with.

In that limited, tactical, sense May’s decision is an adroit one. But it may backfire. For one thing the outcome of the current election cannot be absolutely guaranteed – especially if the turnout is very low. In some ‘safe’ Tory seats where the remain vote was high, the LibDems might win and, more generally, it shouldn’t be forgotten that some 40% of those who voted Tory in 2015 also voted remain; nor that many leave voters are not habitual voters in general elections. That is highly unlikely to prevent the Tories winning but it’s certainly conceivable that the net result does not increase the government’s majority by very much. If so, May will have lost one very strong option in her arsenal as the negotiations progress, since it seems inconceivable that she could call another election within the A50 period. The ultras would then be in a strong position. On the other hand, if the outcome is a large increase in the Tory majority and if my analysis here is correct then it is a pleasing irony to think that the saboteurs May is seeking to crush are the ultra-Brexiters who are currently so enthusiastically supporting her.


  1. The Royal borough of Windsor and Maidenhead voted remain (53.9%). Whilst this is not an overwhelming majority, there is certainly a risk that May and Afriyie, both lose their seats. I wonder whether May has considered the gamble she is taking or if she has been tainted by Cameron's conceit. After all, he was certain the remain vote would win the referendum.

    The fall out if May lost her seat could be rather compelling.

  2. A tantalizing possibility ....

  3. Especially as I have a £10 bet on it happening....

    1. Made more likely by this news, just out, suggesting a hard fight from UKIP in her seat:

  4. UKIP: the brain has stopped functioning but the heart is still beating. Nevertheless, I look forward to my gambling gains.