Brexit and the UK’s Unsavoury Government of all the Knaves

Kirsty Hughes | 27 July 2019

© 2018 European Union

The UK’s failing politics has taken another major lurch downwards with Boris Johnson’s unsavoury and populist government of all the knaves. The lack of consensus in the Tory party and at Westminster on how or whether to pursue Brexit – whilst the UK public, as for the last 18 months, continues to have a majority favouring remain – is simply being brushed aside by Johnson’s gang.

The aim seems to be to somehow rush the UK out of the EU in a no deal Brexit by 31st October or, failing that, to have an election where big spending promises combine with ugly, nativist and populist rhetoric to boost the currently not-very-popular Tory party numbers in the polls. If such a campaign returned a far right Tory government with a working majority, then presumably no deal Brexit would happen at that point – or just possibly a reversion to the earlier version of the backstop for Northern Ireland alone (since in this scenario the Tories would no longer rely on the DUP).

There is, of course, no democratic mandate for no deal Brexit – and arguably, over three years after the 2016 referendum and with a current UK majority for remain, little mandate for Brexit at all. But the far right of the Tory party that has inserted itself into government has for now little concern with their lack of mandate.

In office for just a few days, Boris Johnson has already deliberately connived to worsen relations with the EU, not least with Ireland. This, it seems, is all part of blaming the EU for an approaching no deal, while ultimately (if there is a clear strategy here at all) promoting and aiming at such a no deal outcome. This looks like pure populism – blame other countries, and the pessimistic (read unpatriotic) opposition, while making unfunded spending promises in all directions.

The Tory government’s failure to pass the withdrawal agreement is now a reason, according to Johnson’s motley cabinet, why the EU should abandon the Irish backstop and negotiate a unicorn-laden deal with the new government. This is not going to happen – and Johnson clearly has no intention of picking any of the realistic, viable Brexit options – whether Canada-Dry (plus a Northern Irish backstop) or the Withdrawal Agreement’s indefinite customs union backstop or a Norway-style Brexit (plus or minus a customs union). The new UK government is, very deliberately, and for very right wing motivations, placing itself in fantasy land on where next on Brexit.

But UK politics did not get to this nadir in the last three years without the failing opposition, personified in Corbyn’s Labour, being a major contributory factor. The lack of a strong remain voice from the main opposition party – and the failure to provide substantive opposition to the extraordinary, incompetent and damaging spectacle of Tory Brexit policies in the last three years – is all part of the UK’s failing politics. Even now, while claiming they support a public vote on any Brexit deal, Corbyn is incapable of saying he and Labour would back remain in any public vote – only in the case of no deal or a ‘bad’ Tory deal. This also leaves Labour with the bizarre ‘position’ that they’re not sure if they would support a Brexit deal they might negotiate in government or support remain in such a scenario.

Meanwhile, at this moment of major political crisis, Westminster has gone on holiday until September, leaving the unsavoury new government to dissemble, posture, and insult our European allies. There is little sense from politicians, or the media, that these are grave, crisis-ridden days indeed for the UK.

Where may this go next? Attention is focusing on whether Johnson might call an early autumn election or be forced into one. If the plan is to crash out on 31st October and then have an election, will Johnson’s government be stopped from doing this? Westminster does not have a majority for a no deal Brexit. But can MPs force Johnson to ask for an Article 50 extension? If not, then the route to stopping no deal would seem to lie with a successful vote of no confidence.

But an election out of such a no confidence vote might take place after 31st October. If Johnson refused even in an election scenario to request an Article 50 extension, a government of national unity would be needed to make such a request – and explain to the EU27 whether its request was for a people’s vote, a general election or both. To have a majority, this would need the opposition parties and enough Tory rebels to combine in such a government. The EU, at such a moment, would be likely to agree to such a request – the EU27 have little reason to help the survival of the Brexiters’ unsavoury and insulting government.

With the UK’s fracturing politics and falling support for both Tory and Labour parties, an election will be unpredictable indeed – and the politics of the Brexiters now in government and in the 2016 referendum suggest it will be a disturbing and quite likely dishonest campaign. Yet remain parties including the LibDems (possibly forming a remain alliance, at least in England and Wales) and the SNP as well as other smaller parties look set to do well and could easily hold the balance of power out of an election.

How much longer the UK’s stressed and mal-functioning democracy and politics can stagger on (quite likely downwards) is an open, and critical, question. The three years of Brexit paralysis so far have damaged the economy and divided the UK’s society while shredding its international reputation. In Scotland and Northern Ireland debates on independence and a border poll, respectively, continue.

It is hard to imagine many more months going by without an election. Whether an election will resolve the Brexit implosion of UK politics is unclear. It might lead on to another EU referendum and a remain vote – the least damaging outcome though the UK’s fractured politics would still play out for years ahead. Or it might lead to a no deal Brexit – where the UK, perhaps, hunkers down into its self-imposed chaotic damage, or else returns desperately and humiliated to the negotiating table with the EU. Either way, the union would at that point be stressed quite probably to a point of no return.

What is clear is that the current political crisis will not be resolved – only intensified – by the new Johnson government. Finding the least damaging routes out of the crisis depend on all the opposition parties, most of all Labour, on Tory rebels, and on wider democratic debate – business, unions, civil society all need to speak out now, and the media (with useful lessons to take from the US media’s dealings with Trump) needs to play a serious, not complicit role too, holding this government of all the knaves to full account.

Kirsty HughesKirsty Hughes | Twitter

Scottish Centre on European Relations

Dr Kirsty Hughes is Director of the Scottish Centre on European Relations. She is a researcher, writer and commentator on European politics and policy, and she previously worked for a number of leading European think tanks.