Friday 30 November 2018

The coming crisis

In the last few days, Brexit events have taken on air of unreality. In a couple of weeks’ time, unless something very unexpected happens, the government is going to have its Brexit deal turned down by the House of Commons, precipitating an unprecedented political crisis. No one knows what will then happen, although the blogger and writer Jon Worth has provided a good outline of the main scenarios. The unreality comes from the political news proceeding as if in a parallel universe to this looming crisis.

Business as usual?

Thus the Prime Minister tours the country to garner the support of ‘the people’ for her deal – rather in the format of a General Election campaign - the idea apparently being that some stage-managed media events will lead to a mass campaign of letter-writing to MPs. But this can only underscore that the people are not actually getting a say, because Theresa May will not countenance another referendum. Why? Because the people have already spoken in 2016. So why do the tour? Because now the Brexit deal has been done, and must be explained to the public. But what is to be explained, unless people didn’t already know this in 2016? In which case, how can they have already spoken on it?

Meanwhile, a TV debate between May and Corbyn is being planned. It’s a wholly pointless exercise. As with the tour, it is rendered meaningless by the fact that, unlike in an election campaign, those watching the debate will not then be voting on anything. In any case, it treats the issue as if it is about Tory versus Labour, rather than a multi-positional argument that cuts across several parties and – more than anything else – one raging between at least three, possibly as many as nine, factions within the Conservative Party. And it has given rise to huge rows about when and how to actually do it. Perhaps its only value is as a metaphor for the pointlessness and confusion of Brexit itself.

We already know exactly what May will say in this debate. She has rehearsed her scripted lines endlessly in the three massive question and answer sessions in the House of Commons since the completion of the Withdrawal Agreement. We’ve learned virtually nothing from these not just because she has nothing new to say but because her many critics don’t, either. Worse than that is the fact that those sessions reveal how, even now, many MPs on all sides of the debate still don’t understand even quite basic facts about the Brexit process or about what Brexit as a whole involves.

So there’s a kind of ceremonial spectacle underway, in which familiar formats of factory tours, party debates, parliamentary statements are deployed and dutifully reported upon but which have about as much relevance as the flummery of Black Rod knocking on the door of the House of Commons chamber. Like that relic of a by-gone era, the present spectacle conceals the emerging possibility in which Brexit blows apart the party political landscape that we’ve been used to.

Labour need to get real

Where the TV debate might conceivably be useful is if it forced Jeremy Corbyn to finally come up with a meaningful Brexit position. At the moment, he is still pushing the line that Labour would negotiate a better Brexit deal than May’s. But even if a process could be devised to effect such a re-negotiation Corbyn’s message for what he would seek from it is pitifully inadequate: “a strong single market deal”. What could this conceivably mean? On the face of it, it just takes us back two or more years to the ‘cakeist’ fallacy of being out of the single market but with all the benefits. That was never going to happen, and May’s experience of trying for it has proved it. Opposing May’s deal but offering no viable alternative is an untenable position, at least once it’s been voted down.

Or does Corbyn mean single market membership? If so, it’s (more than) time he said so unambiguously. If he did, he’d be aligning with the re-emerging interest in the ‘Norway +’ model being floated by the Conservative MP Nick Boles and gaining increasing traction amongst MPs. That model, which has developed in a more realistic direction than Boles’ previous ‘Norway for Now’ idea (mainly as he has dropped the unworkable ‘for now’ part) combines both single market membership with a form of customs union (the latter is already Labour policy but, in itself, doesn’t resolve the Irish border issue, whereas Norway + would).

There is plenty of technical detail that would need to be worked out, but something like Norway + was always the most obvious way of responding to the referendum, both politically and economically. It would always have presented difficulties, of course. Optimistically, it could be seen as a compromise solution in which each side gets some of what they want; equally, it could be seen as giving no one what they want. The latter may be more true now to the extent that remain and leave positions are perhaps more deeply entrenched now than they were two years ago.

Conservatives irredeemably divided

At all events, May’s deal is now being touted as the compromise position and is, precisely, one that pleases almost no one. That is partly because she raised the Brexiters’ expectations so high that they were bound to be disappointed, especially as they were always predisposed to see betrayal in any outcome. By the same token, although often being described in the media as a soft Brexit May’s deal is by no means that, because it does not, indeed, encompass single market membership.

So almost no one has a reason to support it, which is reflected in the fact that the list of the 100 or so Conservative MPs who are likely to oppose the deal includes figures on both pro- and anti-Brexit wings. There is something truly remarkable, not to say hypocritical, about the spectacle of Brexit Ultra MPs voting alongside some of those remainers who they vilified for forcing the government to concede a ‘meaningful vote’ in the first place.

Nor do the ironies end there: whereas Dominic Raab has said that May’s deal is worse than remaining in the EU, and will presumably vote against it, Ken Clarke, the only Tory MP to vote against triggering Article 50, is reportedly set to vote for the deal. Others, like Nicky Morgan, are taking the position of supporting May’s deal in the first (and possibly second) instance, with Norway + as ‘plan B’, even though it is (presumably) closer to what she would actually like than ‘plan A’.

What happens if May loses the vote?

If all this seems confusing, it’s because it is. There is no longer any logic or clear pattern to be discerned in the politics of Brexit. But however it comes about, assuming the deal is defeated, whether on first or second attempt, it’s extremely unlikely that May herself could pivot to proposing Norway +, any more than she could do an about turn on having a referendum, having set herself so unequivocally against both - although nothing can be ruled out.

Nor is it easy to see how she could get her deal through by calling for a General Election, since it would require a large number of sitting MPs to stand on a manifesto commitment to a deal which they had just voted down in parliament. May’s deal may not be, as she says, the only deal there is; but it is surely the only deal that she can do. So the most likely outcome to my mind is that she would have to resign.

Then what? It wouldn’t in itself lead to the Norway + 'plan B', for who would be the Tory leader to deliver it? It is rumoured that Michael Gove and Amber Rudd are coming to support this model, but would the Tory party membership ever elect a leader on such a platform? But if they elect a hard Brexiter as leader, he or she would be unable to get such a Brexit (even if there were time to re-negotiate it, which there isn’t, and a willingness to do so on the EU side, which there isn’t) through Parliament. So that means another election, with an unknown outcome – and no guarantee that the Article 50 clock would be stopped by the EU for a leadership contest and/or a General Election anyway.

In short, there is no obvious way if May’s deal is voted down that the Tory party can deliver any kind of Brexit and avoid a full-blown crisis.

Crisis scenarios

These horrendously convoluted political realities (which, in fact, are far more convoluted than I’ve depicted them) mean that any and every route forward has almost insuperable difficulties. I can see only two half-way conceivable scenarios, both of which have huge problems.

The first would be a cross-party national government to deliver Brexit in something like Norway + form, for which there are probably the parliamentary numbers, but it is very hard to see how such a coalition would be put together or who would lead it. The second is another referendum, in some form or another, which would also require a cross-party alliance to deliver the necessary legislation.

Both scenarios would require an extension to the Article 50 period to be agreed, but unlike other scenarios these are the most likely ones in which the EU-27 would accept such an extension.

Either of these scenarios, given their cross-party nature, would have very significant implications for the party system in the future. Clearly they would split the Conservative party for a generation, and perhaps irrevocably. But Labour would be almost as badly affected since there would undoubtedly be some, probably including Corbyn, for whom any kind of rapprochement with the Tory MPs would be anathema.

Moreover, a national government delivering the softest of Brexits would be heavily opposed in the country by the most committed Brexiters and remainers alike, whilst a referendum would be a bitter affair, with any version of the question posed being highly contentious and any outcome leading to years of recrimination. So neither is a good outcome: there are no good outcomes available now, just degrees of badness.

It goes without saying that what actually happens may be nothing like these scenarios. Predictions are always a fool’s game, and Brexit predictions especially so. Other people are making entirely different predictions. For example, Jon Worth, cited earlier, thinks it highly unlikely that May would resign, whilst Tom Kibasi of IPPR thinks a General Election is the only way out. For that matter, we may drift into an ‘accidental’ no deal just because no one can find a route to avoid it.

So I’m certainly not saying that my predictions are any more likely to be right than anyone else’s. But I am certain that if May’s deal is voted down then it is the terrain of political crisis to which we are heading, and it will make the ‘business as usual’ charade of this week’s news totally irrelevant.

Update (19.24, 30/11/18): As I wrote this post, it was in my mind to make the point that the only reason to think that May’s deal might get through – on second if not first presentation - is precisely because MPs will realise what a crisis it would create if it did not. I’m grateful to Susanna Reece for making this point on Twitter, reminding me that I’d failed to mention it. Krishnan Guru-Murthy of C4 News has made a similar point. In Jon Worth’s scenarios, it is the first listed but considered by him to be unlikely. Also relevant is the issue of how much economic, not just political, crisis would be generated by her losing the first vote, discussed in a Reuter’s article this week.
I think the key question here would be the margin by which the first vote is lost – if it is. The numbers would have both a symbolic and a practical meaning. Symbolically, a heavy defeat would make it very hard indeed for May to soldier on to a second vote. Practically, a heavy defeat would mean that an awful lot of MPs, who had already, presumably, considered the consequences of their first vote, changing tack. Amongst those having to do so would be the most hardcore and unpragmatic of MPs, some of whom would positively welcome a crisis. But a close first vote against the deal would be another matter. Then, the chance of over-turning the first vote would of course be much greater.

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