There is now a dangerous void of leadership and policy at the heart of British politics. Indeed it would hardly be an exaggeration to say that, as regards Brexit, the UK no longer has a functioning government. There are no obvious solutions in sight, and the outcome is completely unpredictable.
The House of
Commons has decided that it has confidence in Theresa May’s government, but at
the same time that it is opposed, on a massive scale, to the central and
defining policy of that government: a truly bizarre situation. In rejecting May’s Brexit deal, the core
underlying problem with Brexit itself was revealed: there is no consensus about
what it means, even amongst those who support it.
voted for the deal because it ‘delivers Brexit’, whilst others opposed it
because it ‘betrays Brexit’ whilst still others opposed it because it is ‘the
wrong sort of Brexit’. The consequences of the failure of the Leave campaign to
specify its meaning, and of May to build a durable consensus as to what it
could mean, have now been brutally revealed, as has the vacuity of every
proponent of Brexit claiming that their particular version is sanctified by
17.4 million votes.
politics and junk ideas
So May is
now, far too late, in the process of ‘reaching out’ across parties to modify
her deal. But, so far, it seems that the only aspect she is willing to modify
relates to the Irish backstop provisions. Since there is no prospect of the EU
re-negotiating the substantive parts of this, since changes which aren’t
substantive will not placate those who oppose the deal on those grounds, and
since much of the opposition isn’t simply or even at all to do with the
backstop, this seems to be an utterly pointless exercise.
By, apparently, insisting
that her main ‘red lines’ still define the true meaning of Brexit, May therefore
begins this exercise by rejecting the main Labour demand, to remain in a
customs union. But that demand is, in and of itself, also pointless. Being in a
customs union (not, note, ‘the customs union’, which is only for EU members) in
itself has little value. It certainly doesn’t solve the Irish border issue, nor
does it deliver frictionless trade. Equally pointless is the reason given for not being in a customs union, an
independent trade policy, since the economic benefits of this are, at best, nugatory
and swamped by the wider costs of Brexit.
rejects the demand to ‘take no deal off the table’, made from any number of
quarters, including Labour. But this demand is also pointless. No deal can only be
avoided by agreeing to do something else. If nothing else is agreed, no
deal happens by default. Equally pointless is the commonly given reason for not taking it off the table, that it
gives the UK leverage in negotiating the Withdrawal Agreement, since those
negotiations are closed. There is no reason at all to think that the EU-27
would extend the Article 50 period to re-open those talks, or that a
substantively different outcome would result.
Labour’s idea that, if in power, it could negotiate a better deal as ludicrous
as the ERG idea that May’s Withdrawal Agreement can be rewritten - or, even
more ludicrous, dropped altogether as a prelude to miraculously negotiating a
future trade deal having refused the preconditions for such a negotiation.
These are junk ideas, with no foundation in political reality and at this
very late stage in the day we shouldn’t have to suffer politicians and others
prospects for a solution
is scope for renegotiation is in the Political Declaration on future terms. It
is here that May’s red lines are plain and where they could, if she would
agree, be dropped. The particular issue, of course, is the single market (and,
hence, the freedom of movement and ECJ red lines). Yet not only is she adamant
about these red lines, but Labour’s policy of seeking a “strong single market
relationship” is so vapid as to be entirely meaningless. For that matter, it is
not notably at odds with what May would claim she seeks.
issue is single market membership:
what used to be described as soft Brexit until
the goalposts changed so that it meant anything other than the kamikaze
Brexit of no deal. If Labour were to pivot to supporting single market membership
(as well as a form of customs union), and amending the Political Declaration
accordingly, it seems highly likely that, with Tory rebels, that would command
a majority in the Commons. It’s not even entirely inconceivable that the DUP
would support it, in that it upholds their deepest red line of Northern Ireland
and Great Britain leaving on the same terms. Alternatively, a cross-party coalition
of backbenchers might conceivably be able to create a majority for amending the
Political Declaration in defiance of both front benches.
only take things so far, though. For the point about the Political Declaration,
of course, is that it is non-binding. So even if a cobbled together
cross-parliamentary alliance were to get such an adjustment it would be
immediately prone to unpicking, post-Brexit – for example by a Brexiter
successor to Theresa May.
if Labour were to spearhead and succeed in this initiative, the likely fallout
in terms of Tory splits could well be a successful no confidence vote, an
election and, potentially, a Labour government to implement soft Brexit. If
Labour hadn’t led the way then much more difficult, but not entirely impossible
given these crisis times, would be some form of semi-permanent coalition based
upon that which had forced the amendment of the Political Declaration. In
effect, this would be a form of
parliamentary majority for another referendum could be found, however, that would
only need to endure long enough to frame the legislation and hold the vote
(and, of course, seek the Article 50 extension that would be needed and, most
think, would be granted). But May is resolutely opposed (even though it is
actually the only route by which her deal might have a chance, possibly a good
chance, of succeeding), as is Corbyn. Again, were Labour to change position
then that would make it far easier both to create a parliamentary majority for
a referendum and to sustain it to agree the vexed issues of the question and
the franchise. What the outcome of a referendum would be is, of course, another
pathway is convoluted and currently blocked by one or more apparently immovable
obstacle. The incoherent nature of the Brexit project was always likely to have
brought us here, but it has been compounded by lamentable leadership. May seems
to care about nothing but her monocular version of Brexit whilst Corbyn seems
to care nothing about Brexit at all, to the extent that he apparently doesn’t
understand even the most basic facts about it.
political differences, May and Corbyn are remarkably similar in their grotesque
rigidity, and their slightly tetchy muleishness born of a mediocrity of
character, intellect and judgment. Indeed the most notable thing about the closing
speeches in the ‘no confidence’ debate was that they provided devastating
critiques of both party leaders. Certainly neither seems remotely prepared or
competent to create and lead the kind of temporary or semi-permanent cross-party
parliamentary alliance that looks like the only route out of this mess.
A theme of
many posts on this blog has been that various actors within the Brexit process
need to face up to realities. Indeed, the central reason for the current fiasco
is that so many have failed to do so. From that perspective, we all now need to
face up to the reality of what is happening. The leaders of the two main parties
are woefully inadequate and neither has a deliverable policy on Brexit (May’s
is in tatters and Corbyn
barely has a policy at all), the party system is completely inadequate to
the situation, and parliament is spavined.
something radical changes – and it may, precisely because of the desperate
plight we are now in - then it seems highly likely that Britain will leave the
EU with no deal. That will mean that in ten weeks’ time we will face severe
economic and social dislocation, with the probability of food and medicine shortages,
troops on the street, disruptions to travel and much else.
It would be
an outcome desired by only a tiny minority of grossly irresponsible ideologues
in parliament and amongst the public. The division, crisis and extremism it
would unleash make that feared were there to be another referendum, or even a
revocation of Article 50 without a vote, seem like a walk in the park.
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