Fighting Over No Deal – the UK’s Failing Politics

Kirsty Hughes | 16 August 2019

© 2017 European Union

The no deal politicking is in full spate. Will Boris Johnson really take the UK out of the EU without a deal on 31st October – with all the chaos, damage and hurt that will cause? Or will Westminster stop him and how? The current frenzied focus is on temporary governments of national unity, or a non-national unity Corbyn-led caretaker government or legislative routes to ensure an Article 50 extension.

This is desperate but serious politics. No deal – with its risks to food and medicine supplies (and so to health and daily life), to transport networks, security, the economy, EU citizens in the UK and UK ones in the EU and more – is no joke. But this debate is also in Westminster’s comfort zone too. National unity governments are not comfortable as such for MPs – witness the squealing this week as Corbyn makes his pitch. But ever since Article 50 was triggered, the House of Commons has known what it’s against – a no deal Brexit – but could not agree on what it’s for. So finding a way to thwart no deal is within that long-standing comfort zone.

The Commons has, after all, not only been against a no deal, it’s been against the negotiated deal (three times). It’s tried indicative votes (briefly, rather chaotically) then stopped – getting almost but not quite majorities for a customs union or perhaps for a people’s vote – with the process not translating into anything more. And, of course, bizarrely, May’s unloved deal was in effect an indefinite customs union but neither as an indicative or actual vote did that succeed (let alone its cousin so-called ‘soft’ Brexit).

And so, faced with a prime minister who effectively declares no deal his aim, Westminster is back to its political conversation on what way, if any, this can be stopped. That Johnson is gearing up for an election is clear. But whether he gets to call it – and when (before or after 31st October) – or whether it is imposed on him – and when – is another and key question.

The heated temporary government debate assumes there has first been a successful vote of no confidence. This is likely to be a close vote whenever it happens – if it happens. Johnson might call an election himself first: would Corbyn’s Labour and others actually not vote for an election in that case to deny Johnson the two-thirds majority he would need? Perhaps, perhaps not. Tom Tugendhat, chair of the foreign affairs committee, has even suggested Johnson could take the UK out of the EU in August (though legal experts suggest that would be illegal) – a snap no deal that would certainly intensify its shock impact. Or the parliamentary session might unfold with opportunities to amend legislation and bind the prime minister to requesting an Article 50 extension – and Johnson might still refuse, creating ever deeper constitutional chasms.

So Where Next for Brexit?

Brexit uncertainty is nothing new – the UK’s politics has been divided and failing amidst its uncertainties for the last three years. But a prime minister bent on Brexit by 31st October has given a new focus to the Brexit outcomes guessing game.

One thing is clear – for the UK not to leave the EU on 31st October, Article 50 must be extended. There are other routes – Westminster could decide three years of damage is enough and revoke Article 50. But given the infighting just over forming a temporary government in order to request an Article 50 extension, revocation for now looks highly unlikely.

It also seems likely that any Article 50 extension would be used to hold an election. The EU (barely heard of in the UK’s continuing intense internal debate) has indicated an extension would need to be for something substantive – an election or another referendum. But if Westminster were to succeed in ensuring a UK government (whichever one) requests an Article 50 extension even without complete clarity, the EU is unlikely (despite Macron and others) to say no.

But for an Article 50 extension to then be used for a people’s vote not an election would require a majority for another referendum in Westminster that still, despite (or reflecting) the ever bigger failure of UK politics, is not there. This is what a failed state looks like. Lots of politics to stop one outcome – no deal. But little or failing politics to get to any other outcome. And for a temporary government to be able to stay in power for up to 6 months to run a new EU vote looks unlikely given the current debate and tight majority, if it exists at all, that might deliver a temporary and fairly ramshackle government of some sort. And there is still lack of clarity on what would be on the ballot paper: remain versus no deal or versus May’s deal or something else (unicorns maybe)?

So an election for now looks more likely. But will it be after a no deal exit – with Johnson still as prime minister ludicrously blaming that no deal on anyone but himself? Or will it be before the 31st October – called by Johnson? Or will it be called after Article 50 has been extended – again with Johnson, perhaps no longer prime minister, blaming the failure to Brexit on anyone but himself (this time he would presumably and for once be right).

Here election scenarios multiply. Who will get most seats? With Labour still not a remain party, where will the remain vote go? And what will happen in Scotland and Northern Ireland if the election is held after a no deal Brexit? Corbyn claims if he wins an election (if he did, it would be as a minority administration surely) he will hold a referendum with a remain option – but without saying Labour would back that option, the Labour fudge continuing.

But in the end, amidst all the possible outcomes, either the UK leaves on the 31st October with no deal or Article 50 is extended. If the latter happens, all the Brexit choices will be there, just as they’ve been all along – revoke, people’s vote, the withdrawal agreement, no deal. And whether a subsequent election would produce a House of Commons that has a comfort zone not of prolonging the Brexit agony but of actually deciding what to do is, for now, an open question.

And if the outcome is not extension but no deal then the UK, in its self-imposed chaotic damage, will have thrown away all its bargaining cards and a new phase of political implosion will begin. Overall, it’s not a question of whether the UK is a failed state, just a question of how deep and disruptive that failure is going to be.

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.