Sunday 21 May 2017

What size of Tory majority should remainers hope for?

The best outcome of the election from a remainer point of view is obvious: a parliament with a majority of SNP, LibDems, Greens and Plaid Cymru. Arguably, and with many caveats, the next best thing would be a Labour majority because although Labour are pusillanimous and confused about Brexit, and have a leader who appears to be at best uninterested in and at worst in favour of Brexit, there would be many anti-Brexit MPs in place.

But if we assume that both these scenarios are highly unlikely and that the result is almost certain to be a Tory majority then the question is: what size of Tory majority is best for remainers? Given the current tightening of the opinion polls the range of possibilities now looks to be quite wide, between 40 and over 100. Judged solely from the point of view of being against Brexit, which is better?

Let’s leave aside Theresa May’s wholly spurious argument – which even she cannot believe – that a large majority will in some way help Britain to ‘get a good deal’ by ‘strengthening her hand’ in negotiations. That has rightly been denounced as nonsense from all sides to the Brexit spectrum because the EU will simply be negotiating with the British government, without regard for or interest in its domestic majority. If anything, a small majority can help in negotiations because, as the astute Tory journalist Ian Birrell argues, it enables the government to argue that it could not get the deal through parliament. But, really, it’s irrelevant except as an electoral ploy.

For remainers, the main argument for favouring a large Tory majority is the possibility which I floated in a previous post, and which some media commentators have also advanced but others vehemently rejected, that this would enable the government to be less controlled by ultra-Brexit Tory backbenchers. There are several assumptions in that, first and foremost that May’s government will, if unhampered by the ultras, seek to advance a pragmatic Brexit. That means, so far have we gone from any kind of sense, avoiding a ‘no deal’ crash out. There are some signs that this assumption is valid, since the Tory manifesto seems to accept that there will have to be compromises, the payment of some kind of ‘exit bill’, and is muted on CJEU jurisdiction. But it cannot be taken for granted, since May’s position is so unclear.

The other assumption is that the new intake in the event of the big Tory majority would not augment the numbers of (ultra) Brexiters. This assumption is also, I think, a reasonable one if the first assumption is also correct. If it is the case that May will seek to avoid an ultra Brexit then the new intake is likely to go along with that. Firstly because there is some evidence that Conservative Central HQ have sought to parachute May loyalists into safe seats to detriment of Brexiters (Daniel Hannan’s failure to be selected in Aldershot being a high profile example). Secondly because, in any case, new and ambitious MPs are always more biddable than old salt Brexiters like Redwood, Cash and Duncan Smith, whatever their personal views may be.

An additional argument for a large Tory majority is that it would be more likely to lead to a new Labour leader, who might be more anti-Brexit than Corbyn. Yvette Cooper, Clive Lewis, Chuka Umanna or Keir Starmer are all possibilities. But, of course, even if that happened it would have little effect, at least in the crucial period of the Article 50 negotiations.

A smaller Tory majority, by contrast, might be good from an anti-Brexit perspective in that it would bring into play whatever is left of the Tory remainers. Admittedly, they have been utterly feeble so far (with the honourable exception of Ken Clarke, who will most likely be in the next Parliament) but they might be emboldened by the combination of a small majority and the unfolding, inevitable, rising tangible costs of Brexit. Moreover, a smaller majority would make it much harder for May to claim – as she and the Brexit press clearly want to – an overwhelming Brexit mandate in which all opposition is deemed to be ‘sabotage’ and against the ‘will of the people’. That would be important not just, or even primarily, in terms of parliamentary arithmetic but in terms of the legitimacy of wider voices in civil society, business, academia and so on. It would make the Brexit McCarthyism that I have posted about previously a bit less potent.

Embedded within that is a peculiar unintended consequence of the way that the Tories called the election and the manner in which they have so far fought it. From the beginning, the assumption was that a huge majority was all but certain. This means, though, that a perfectly strong result, and one much better than achieved by Cameron in 2015 – a majority of 40, say – would in some sense be construed as a failure. In fact, given the extravagant predictions, anything less than a 100 majority will be a kind of a let-down. At the same time, the vagueness of the Tory manifesto both in general (the lack of costings) and on Brexit in particular, which might give freedom of action if the majority is large, will sap legitimacy if the majority if small. For Brexit that could matter especially in the pro-remain House of Lords, which would be wary of defying a landslide Commons majority and/or very specific manifesto pledges.

I am still not sure what the answer to this question is, partly because there are so many other imponderables – for example, a small Tory majority with a much enhanced LibDem representation might be quite different to a larger Tory majority with less LibDems, and the extent to which the SNP hold their seats will matter, as will the vote in Northern Ireland. But with all that said I suppose that the least-worst outcome is a small Tory majority which could at least strike some kind of deal with the EU and get it through parliament in defiance of the Tory ultra Brexiters with the support of the other parties. That shows, though, how shrivelled and limited the options for Britain now are: none of them are good, it is just a matter of the bad, the worse or the catastrophic.

A final thought, about what may well become a big issue in the future. Suppose that the next Tory government negotiate a deal which contains some compromises on issues like free movement of people, ECJ jurisdiction and budget payments. It would, of course, be a far less good deal than staying in the EU or even than a soft Brexit of staying in the single market. But it would be better than the ultra-Brexit ‘no deal’. In that scenario, the agreed deal would have to be ratified by the European Parliament, in what could well be a close vote. UKIP would by that date be (presumably) irrelevant within UK politics, having been outflanked by May in this election, but would still have MEPs. Is it, then, possible that they would join what could be a successful vote to veto the deal? And, if so, what an irony that a Brexit endorsed by the British parliament might be undone by the European Parliament courtesy of UKIP.

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