Friday 31 May 2019

The Brexit aporia

As anticipated in my post a month ago, Britain is well on course to squander the extension period, primarily by virtue of the Tory leadership contest. That will take us to July, when everything will pretty much stop for the summer in Westminster and Brussels. So Brexit is effectively on hold until September, as, apparently and astonishingly, is Labour’s decision on whether to have a clear policy on it. Then there will be a couple of months left before the extension is due to expire.

The next Prime Minister seems highly likely to seek to renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) and especially to try to replace the Irish backstop with ‘alternative arrangements’, or to place a time limit on it. This is a non-starter, one very good reason being the terms under which the October extension was granted which specify (paragraph 12): “this extension excludes any re-opening of the Withdrawal Agreement”. There will be no renegotiation, something reiterated by Michel Barnier in an interview this week and underscored by the EU starting to dismantle its Brexit negotiating team.

As for the nonsense of ‘alternative arrangements’, this has been discussed ad nauseam on this blog and elsewhere but an excellent new piece this week by Sam Lowe of the Centre for European Reform provides a measured summary. Yet a belief in this nonsense is now hard-baked into Tory thinking on Brexit, found not just amongst the Ultras but generally more pragmatic politicians such as Damian Green and Nicky Morgan.

Any half-way honest candidate for the Tory leadership would admit these obvious facts now. But of course then they would not be elected. So instead they will be forced to face them later. Thus we are set for exactly the same dynamic as characterised May’s premiership. In order to manage the internal disputes of the Tory Party, the government pursues impossible fantasises. The EU has no need to manage the Tory Party and exposes the fantasies as just that. Cue more outrage about how unreasonable the EU are being.

A thought experiment

But there’s a very easy way to see the flaw in that. Imagine that, the WA completed, the UK had been all geared up to ratify it and it was the EU-27 that had fallen into disarray and could not do so because of internal divisions. And so it was they who were seeking renegotiation of something that the UK regarded as having been agreed. It’s not very difficult to see that the UK, and Brexiters in particular, would be outraged. And, no doubt, would be saying that, in that case, let the EU-27 accept the consequences of no-deal if that’s what they want.

In that context, too, imagine if it were the EU-27 who were saying that the thing they wanted changed (the financial settlement, say) could be resolved if the UK accepted the one solution that the 27 had agreed on (that the settlement be recalculated according to an unspecified formula, say). What, then, would the Brexiters’ response be? Again, it’s not hard to guess. But this is exactly the logic of what Brexiters argue when they say that the Brady Amendment (i.e. to remove the backstop in favour of alternative arrangements) should be accepted by the EU as it is the only thing that the British Parliament has voted in a majority for.

Of course, so elementary a thought experiment is beyond Brexiters, plumped up with outrage and entitlement. So, come the autumn, the possibility of no-deal will get ratcheted up several more notches by the new Prime Minister (in the unlikely event that the race isn’t won by a ‘no backstop or no dealer’, we’ll just be back to the impasse of May’s deal). But that will face several formidable hurdles, even leaving aside the issue of whether Parliament could and would prevent it.

The illegitimacy of no-deal Brexit

The most obvious is that, for all that Brexit Ultras wrap their no-deal preference in the threadbare cloth of 17.4 million voters, it wasn’t remotely what the Leave campaign promised Brexit would mean in the 2016 Referendum. Indeed, Vote Leave promised those voters (mendaciously, for it could never have happened) that negotiations would be completed before the UK even began the formal process of leaving. It’s inconceivable that a no-deal platform would have won in 2016, and it is a mark of how cowed many mainstream politicians have become that they would even countenance it as being the ‘will of the people’.

Certainly it is not justified by recent polling evidence, which suggests that no-deal is supported by 25% of the electorate – a bit less than support leaving with a deal (27%), and considerably less than support not leaving at all (41%). Even amongst those who voted for the Brexit Party in last week’s European elections, where support for no-deal is presumably highest, only 67% want it. It is emphatically not a popular policy.

This means that if the next Prime Minister does try to implement it next autumn – and if so it will be amid growing economic chaos as the October deadline approaches - there will be a huge problem of legitimacy. In the past, the constitutional reality that the PM can change mid-way through a Parliament was broadly accepted. Few questioned Callaghan’s accession in 1976, or Major’s in 1990. But, largely because politics has become more presidential, that acceptance has faded. Brown’s takeover in 2007 led to immediate questions about the need for another election, as did May’s accession in 2016.

That is going to be as nothing compared with what will happen in 2019 when a Prime Minister - with no Parliamentary majority, holding office on the basis of the votes of (estimates vary but at most) 160,000 mainly ageing Tory Party members (of whom, extraordinarily, 59% voted for the Brexit Party at the European elections, and just 19% for the Conservatives) - tries to enact so all-encompassing and so divisive a policy as Brexit. And if the approach is the most extreme, no-deal, version of it then there is going to be a very serious crisis of legitimacy.

It just will not wash to say that a narrow vote in 2016, one General Election and three leaders later, interpreted by a PM, who has not faced a General Election, in a way that was never proposed, which only a minority of voters support, and which is against the wishes of parliament, is in any real way a democratic process. Farage has been talking a lot in the last few days about the need in a democracy for “losers’ consent”; such a situation would not even have “winners’ consent”.

The politics of the grotesque

The “losers’ consent” argument is in any case entirely bogus, even leaving aside the grotesque hypocrisy of it being made by Farage, who clearly stated that had Leave lost by the same margin they won it would be “unfinished business”. For it suggests that the reason Brexit has gone so horrifically wrong is because the losing side didn’t accept the result.

That is a further illustration of Brexiters’ refusal to take responsibility for that fact that they had no idea – and in Farage’s case no interest in – how to deliver a viable policy. Had there been such a policy, most opposition would have quickly dissipated. In fact, it has grown as the false promises of Brexiters have become clearer. No one – ‘loser’ or ‘winner’ in a vote – is obliged to consent to something that, within its own terms, has already failed.

Or perhaps I am unfair to say that Brexiters refuse to take responsibility. After all, hasn’t Farage – shrilly supported by Ann Widdecombe – demanded a seat at the negotiating table by virtue of the Brexit Party’s showing in the European Elections?

But that, too, is grotesque: MEPs are not in any way a part of the British government. They have an important job to do – not that Farage seems to realise that, judging by his woeful record in the European Parliament, where his ‘productivity score’ shows him to be ranked at 736 out of 749 MEPs – but it is not governing Britain and you might expect that Brexiters, of all people, would appreciate that. It is in any case bizarre to propose involvement in negotiations when his policy is to ditch all negotiations, and to have a role in making a deal when his policy is not to have a deal.

Culture war

But, of course, Nigel Farage – “the most dangerous man in Britain” as a New York Times article this week dubbed him - has no commitment to delivering anything in the national interest. His interests lie elsewhere, whether that be westwards or eastwards if indeed there is any difference any more. Everything he says and does is in pursuit of a culture war which has little to do with Brexit.

And it should be admitted that, through Brexit, he and his allies have been successful in this. Whatever happens now, that culture war is here to stay for the foreseeable future. At worse it will intensify. Whatever happens now, Brexit will dominate British politics for years, crowding out vital issues such as, currently, the social care crisis. At worse, it will overwhelm all other policies. Whatever happens now, the damage already done will persist (to take just one of many of examples: the European Medicines Agency is gone for good and with it the hub of the strategically crucial biomedical industry). At worse, it will cause a catastrophe.

Another referendum may, conceivably, get us out of the worst practical consequences of the Brexit mess. But that will not win the culture war (what, anyway, does victory or defeat look like in a culture war?) and it is certainly fanciful to think that it would “cauterise the gaping national split and confront once and for all the many dark issue that lurk beneath the nativist Brexit idea”, as Polly Toynbee suggested this week. That’s not an argument against another referendum but just to say that, even if remain won, all it would mean would be Britain remaining in the EU, nothing else.

For remainers, there is no way to get back to 2016, just as for leavers there is no way forward to get what they were promised in 2016. In that sense, just as Brexit is on hold so too is Britain – suspended between an unrecoverable past and an unattainable future. Brexit has ceased to be, if indeed it ever was, understandable simply as an ‘institutional’ question about Britain’s membership of the EU. Instead it has morphed into a cultural battle about what Britain - England, especially, but not just England – is. So it has ceased to have an institutional answer, deliverable by normal forms of politics and policymaking. It is an aporia, a pathless path, with no way forward and no way back.

Monday 27 May 2019

Interpreting the UK European Election results

At one level, the explanation of the UK’s European election results* is entirely simple. If you are in favour of Brexit, you see the Tories as not delivering it, or not delivering it ‘properly’ and so voted for the Brexit Party. If you are opposed to Brexit, you see Labour not opposing it, or not opposing it ‘properly’, and so voted for one of the anti-Brexit parties.

Nested inside that broad explanation are several interesting sub-themes, which may have considerable bearing on what happens in the coming months and even years.

The rise of the Brexit Party

The most attention grabbing, and most widely-trailed, development was the rise of the new Brexit Party. But it’s important not to allow Farage’s interpretation of what this means to become the received wisdom (and, most certainly, the idea it gives him a right to be involved in Brexit negotiations is drivel, the more so since he proposes simply to leave without further negotiations).

For one thing, the result wasn’t nearly as dramatic as it seemed, in that it was achieved primarily by the near total cannibalization of the UKIP vote (currently down 24.2% compared with 2014). So although the new party surpassed UKIP’s 2014 vote by some margin (at time of writing, 31.6% of vote share compared with UKIP’s 26.6% in 2014), it should not be read as a massive ‘swing to Farage’. Some headlines this morning are suggesting that it is the Brexit Party that has sent the main two parties into meltdown (£), but it is abundantly clear that the collapse in their respective votes (Labour down 11.3%, Tories down 14.9%) cannot adequately be explained in that way.

Moreover, the widespread interpretation that the votes for the Brexit Party translate into support for no-deal Brexit should be treated with huge caution. As with the Leave campaign during the referendum, but even more starkly, the Brexit Party did not campaign on a detailed manifesto (on any manifesto at all, in fact), so whilst of course it is fair to assume that everyone who voted for them supports Brexit it certainly isn’t possible to infer what sort of Brexit they favour. And even those who might currently want no-deal will not necessarily be supportive of it were it to happen, and the consequences become obvious.

Tory Party: immediate issues

So whereas the main focus of attention is on the Tory Party losing pro-Brexit voters, it is clear that it is also losing centrist, pragmatic, pro-business, socially liberal (and, of course, anti-Brexit) voters. Michael Heseltine’s announcement that he would be voting for the LibDems is emblematic of the situation of this group of voters.

At one time, such voters were the bedrock of Tory electoral support and are still spoken for by ex-politicians like John Major and, indeed, Heseltine as well as, currently, the new One Nation Caucus. Crucially, though, they are not any longer the bedrock of the party membership. So it seems inevitable that the next Tory leader will be a hard Brexiter, and will further alienate this segment of the electorate which will drift off to the smaller parties or to not voting at all.

The new leader will instead chase those who have just supported the Brexit Party. The irony is likely to be that significant numbers of them will probably not be amenable to being pulled back. That might be especially true if the current front-runner, Boris Johnson, is successful because he has long been regarded with contempt by hard core Brexiters. That’s not surprising, because Brexiters are quite as capable as anyone else of recognizing Johnson’s opportunism and dishonesty, which are not, after all, exactly difficult to spot.

At all events, with the genie of populism out of the bottle, anything the Tories now do on Brexit will be liable to be called betrayal. That would include a no-deal scenario because, as pointed out in a previous post, no-deal will immediately and necessarily be followed by a new negotiating process which will bring new compromises and concessions that a substantial chunk of the Brexit Party vote will not accept. As Theresa May found, however hard a Brexit is pursued the Ultras will always call for it to be harder still.

Labour Party: immediate issues

As for Labour, they have paid the price of all the ambiguities of their Brexit policy since 2016. In facing both ways - or neither way - they have alienated both sides.

The standard analysis that because the majority in many Labour constituencies, especially in the English Midlands and North, voted to leave this should frame Labour’s position was always flawed. Many of those who did so were not necessarily Labour voters anyway. Those who were do not tend to strongly prioritise Brexit above all else (and do so far less than non-Labour leave voters) and are more likely than many groups of leave voters to have subsequently changed their minds. And those who do prioritise Brexit and haven’t changed their minds won’t be satisfied by Labour’s mealy-mouthed position and will have been snapped up by Farage anyway.

Plus there is a deeper and more unpalatable issue for Corbyn and his supporters. Even if Brexit hadn’t happened, the kind of traditional Labour voters who supported it (apart from a smallish group of far-Left Lexiters) are probably alienated by Corbyn anyway. Not because he is ‘too left-wing’ per se, but because he is the ‘wrong sort’ of left-wing: perceived as unpatriotic, soft on defence and security, too liberal on social issues, too pre-occupied with minority rights. That may be unfair or misguided – I make no comment on that - but it means that those voters would be hard for Labour to attract under his leadership however hard a pro-Brexit stance he took, let alone with his ‘yes but not a Tory Brexit’ approach.

In the meantime, Labour’s ambiguity – especially about when its theoretical support for another referendum would come to override pursuit of the ‘preferred option’ of a General Election – has run out of road for many of the majority of its voters and members who are pro-remain. They lived with that ambiguity in the 2017 General Election only then to be continually told that in supporting Labour they were part of the 80% who, with those who had supported the Conservatives, had voted for hard Brexit. They lived with it, to a much lesser extent, in the recent Local Elections only then to be told by Corbyn that the results were a message to ‘get on with Brexit’. In the European elections, large numbers of them have shown that they have had enough of the mixed messages.

Remain parties

Unlike Brexiters, who have had a single party to flock to, disaffected remainers from both Tory and Labour parties had multiple possibilities for where to place their vote and, except perhaps in Scotland, it was difficult for them to judge which to choose for the most effect.

Building very substantially on the momentum of the local elections, the LibDems have emerged as the clear front-runners to represent the remainer vote. That is something which has been on the cards since the Richmond by-election of December 2016, but has only now begun to take off. With Vince Cable’s resignation, a dynamic new LibDem leader would have a real chance to build on it.

Even so, one of the most striking features of the present landscape is the failure of remainers to construct a unified political movement or party. It will be a key challenge in the coming weeks and months to do so. There is already talk of Change UK, who failed their first electoral test, merging with the LibDems.  Again, a skilful new LibDem leader could play a pivotal role in fashioning a ‘Remain Alliance’ with perhaps some form of agreement with the Greens who achieved a good, if not quite spectacular, result.

The failure of the ‘remain community’ to fashion a remain political alliance has diluted its impact in terms of MEPs elected and that matters in two ways. First because it somewhat masks the extent to which Britain really is still split down the middle, by making it possible for the Brexit Party to have been said to have ‘won’ the elections on the basis of having the largest share of the vote and the most MEPs. Trying to counter that by analysing cumulative vote shares of various parties inevitably has less clarity and cut-through.

Second, and much more important in the long run, it matters because if we do end up staying in the EU we really need to re-build relationships and this will be much harder without a unified remain group to counter-balance what will undoubtedly be the embarrassing antics of the large bloc of Brexit Party MEPs.

Indeed, it can only be a matter of national shame to be represented in such numbers by this motley ragbag of freaks, demagogues, fantasists and charlatans, elected with no manifesto and with no care for, or even understanding of, the damage their faux-patriotism will do to our country.

Beneath Brexit

The big question now is whether these election results are transient, the result of the particular moment they were held – including the unpopularity of Theresa May - and the fact that voters have always treated European elections differently to General Elections not least in terms of turnout, or whether they betoken the beginning of a significant realignment?

With all the caveats implied, there are good reasons to believe the latter, partly because ‘remainer’ and ‘leaver’ have now become defining political identities for a large section of the population.

A few days before the elections Jeremy Corbyn tweeted that “the real divide in our country is not between those who voted Leave and Remain three years ago”. That is a profound misreading: it is precisely the divide. To ignore it is as mistaken as the claim from May (when calling the 2017 General Election) that the country was coming together about Brexit, even if politicians were not.

But more significant is that commitment to one or other side in the Brexit debate codes many things which go well beyond UK membership of the European Union. This was clear from the polls in the immediate aftermath of the referendum showing how the way people voted correlated strongly with attitudes to feminism, environmentalism, social liberalism, globalization and, of course, multi-culturalism and immigration.

Ever since then, as I argued in an academic article, and as of course many others have said, a re-alignment of parties to reflect this repertoire of linked beliefs and values has been on the cards. These European election results may be evidence that it is beginning to happen, or at the least that it has the potential to happen.

Tory Party: deeper issues

If so, it shatters the electoral coalitions which are necessary for all political parties, especially in a first past the post system. The contradiction of the Tory amalgam of traditionalism and nationalism on the one hand and globalised free markets on the other is really being tested to destruction. It was the basis of Thatcher’s electoral success but has been strained ever since, with European policy the key fault line.

In relation to Brexit that became obvious when a vote for a campaign whose central message was about immigration control and national self-determination was suddenly re-interpreted as one for turbocharged global free markets. Or, in a more muted way, it is present in May’s realisation that a ‘clean Brexit’ would be economically disastrous and in some form or other there would have to be a continuing ‘deep and special partnership’ – that distinction is now at the heart of the battle between the Tories and the Brexit Party.

That battle will frame the choices the next Tory leader makes. It is all but inevitable that, both in order to fight off Farage and to satisfy its own membership, this leader will adopt a policy of seeking to renegotiate the backstop and, when that fails, try to take the country to no-deal. If so (leaving aside the far more important question of the damage to the country) the electoral coalition which has sustained the party will totally and irredeemably break down. There are already intimations of that in statements by Philip Hammond over the weekend (£). The same will happen if, at the last moment, the new leader pulls back from the ruin of no-deal but in that scenario because of the rage of the ERG wing.

It would be a bold prediction that the Tory Party will be destroyed by Brexit. But almost a truism that it will be traumatised by it for years and probably decades.

Labour Party: deeper issues

Labour as a party and as an electoral coalition is challenged in similar ways by the cleavages underlying Brexit. Even before the referendum they faced difficulties in holding on to their traditional heartlands which, in Scotland, had already been lost. Labour, too, face contradictions between socially liberal, globalist internationalists and socially traditionalist, protectionist nationalists. That tension (which, arguably, has been present since the birth of the Labour Party) was very clearly in evidence throughout the Blair years and fed through into the divisions over Brexit.

Even so, unlike the Tories, EU membership has not been a schismatic issue for Labour, at least since the 1980s. Thus, potentially, Labour could have been better placed to deal with Brexit than has proved the case. It may still be possible but is now much harder. In the early days, Labour could have adopted a clear ‘soft Brexit’ policy of single market membership that, arguably, could have been the basis for a consensus. Instead they talked meaninglessly, as they still do, about single market ‘access’ or a ‘strong single market deal’. Even if that now changes, the growing hardening of pro- and anti-Brexit positions amongst the electorate means that soft Brexit has far less chance of providing that consensus.

Now, Labour has to pick a side**. It is no good saying, as the Labour MP Lisa Nandy recently suggested, that Labour must ‘bridge the divide’ between leave and remain positions – and notably, she did not say how this could be done. There is no middle ground anymore and, although in the long run it is surely right and vital to seek to heal the divisions caused by the Brexit vote, there is no way in the immediate term of doing so by refusing to take a clear stance on what should be done about Brexit.

At the time of writing, there are signs that, in the aftermath of Theresa May’s resignation as well as these election results, Labour might move to a firm position in favour another referendum. But there have been lots of false dawns on that, and many influential figures oppose it. If it is going to happen, it needs to happen quickly and decisively with Corbyn emphatically supporting it. Winks, nods and hints are no longer enough.

Nevertheless, since such a recalibration is possible for Labour it follows that they, unlike the Tories, do at least have the possibility of avoiding being permanently traumatised by Brexit.


These European election results are the first electorally tangible crystallization of the harder and more polarised divisions which have grown since the 2016 Referendum. They unequivocally give the lie to the absurd claim that the 2017 General Election meant that ‘80% of voters’ had given their support to Brexit. They also undermine the idea, based on that General Election result, that the dominance of the two main parties had been reasserted. In that sense, the results point to an underlying, potentially structural, shift in British political culture.

Such shifts are easy to ignore when the focus is mainly on the daily unfolding events of Brexit. But they are crucial to those events. Indeed, in some ways, the entire Brexit process can be read as a manifestation of those structural shifts, rather as earthquakes are manifestations of the underlying movements of tectonic plates. What happens in the next few months will determine whether the Brexit earthquake turns out to be ‘completely devastating’ or merely ‘very damaging’.


*N.B. this post was written after the results in England and Wales were announced, but before those for Scotland and Northern Ireland were available.
**For a more detailed, and highly insightful, analysis of Labour’s Brexit position to date see Simon-Wren Lewis’s recent blog post on the topic.