Brexit and the UK’s Political Implosion

Kirsty Hughes | 12th September 2019

© UK Parliament, Rennett Stowe, CC-BY-2.0

The UK’s acute political and constitutional crisis staggers on. Boris Johnson’s wanton disregard for parliament, the constitution, truth, the Union, the damaging impact of no deal is as clear as it’s appalling. His advisers apparently conceal their governmental activities through WhatsApp, burner phones and more, and the UK’s minority government chooses to be in contempt of the parliament it’s just suspended in refusing to accede to the demand for these messages to be handed over. The summary Yellowhammer no deal document predicts disruption to medical supplies, fresh food, transport, problems with adult social care, problems in controlling disease outbreaks in livestock and much much more.

Aptly enough, given Scotland’s parliament at Holyrood is functioning perfectly well, it has taken a Scottish court to rule that Johnson’s suspension of parliament is unlawful – though this will be tested next Tuesday in the UK Supreme Court. In effect, the Scottish judges ruled that Johnson deliberately misled the Queen. If the Supreme Court agrees with the Scottish court, it will be a major plus for our democracy and another blow to Johnson’s crumbling pretence at power. Westminster returning will not solve the imploding Brexit crisis but it is a necessary step in that effort.

If the Supreme Court rules the five week prorogation legal, that will be a deep further blow to the UK’s political and constitutional order. But in Scotland, for the SNP and pro-independence movement, it will surely boost arguments for independence at a time when polls show support for independence now at 49% (or in one Ashcroft poll at 52%). It’s a tough call, at the moment, to argue in favour of the UK union as Johnson and his gang run amok.

And suspending the UK parliament to drive through a no deal Brexit will go down badly across pro-remain Scottish voters (still at around two-thirds of voters) whether pro- or anti-independence. Whenever the upcoming general election is finally held, the current crop of 13 Tory MPs are likely to be all but swept from the board – perhaps a couple hanging onto their seats while the SNP looks, from the polls, likely to regain many of the seats they lost in 2017, perhaps getting as many as 50 or more of Scotland’s 59 seats.

Westminster has, of course, voted to instruct the prime minister to ask for an extension of Article 50 for 3 months, if it hasn’t voted in favour of a deal – or indeed in favour of no deal (the Commons remains as against no deal as it is incapable of deciding what to actually do with Brexit). Whether Johnson will attempt to or can sabotage such an extension request, other than by resigning, may be open to doubt – but chances are he will try. And whether the EU, beyond weary at the UK’s antics and political collapse, will extend Article 50 is not certain – though if the request comes with the explanation it is to hold a general election, then it is likely to succeed (though hopes that if Johnson doesn’t make the request, the EU heads of government will accept it coming from parliament look unlikely indeed).

Amidst the essentially phoney negotiations currently going on in Brussels – with no detailed proposals forthcoming from the UK’s apology for a government – some hope that Johnson may be moving towards the previously rejected model of a backstop for Northern Ireland only. Such a move would ensure an open Irish border and put the EU-British border in the Irish Sea – but only if Northern Ireland is in the EU’s customs union as well, at least, in its single market for goods and agriculture.

Would Johnson really put a customs border down the Irish Sea? And would his dwindling Tory troops, minus the DUP, minus some/many of the more extreme Brexiter Tory MPs and perhaps plus the Stephen Kinnock group of ‘we’ll vote for any deal now’ MPs, amount to a majority?

It looks like a long shot. And it’s not just up to the Commons. An Irish Sea border would, in principle, allow Johnson’s deregulatory, populist Tories (if still in government) to negotiate a ‘Canada minus minus’ deal. This means the Britain-EU border – whether at Dover/Calais or in the Irish Sea – would be a hard one with a bigger negative impact on goods’ exports than May’s deal or a ‘Canada dry’ deal, and with services hugely damaged in any event by leaving the EU’s single market.

It’s also important to note that while a Northern Ireland only backstop would surely be preferable to the EU including Ireland than no deal, it’s a much worse deal in particular for Ireland – without the easing effects on goods trade that would come with the UK being indefinitely in the EU customs union (as in May’s unloved deal). And whether the EU would subsequently agree a ‘Canada minus minus’ trade deal, with Britain going down a Wild West deregulatory route, rather than just leave Britain to trade on WTO terms is at best an open question.

Border questions will also continue to feature in the Scottish independence debate in this Brexit scenario. An independent Scotland in the EU, with the rest of the UK (or rather the rest of Britain) with a Canada minus minus deal, would face a hard border between England and Scotland. But if a Tory government agrees a Northern Ireland only backstop, it will surely argue (wrongly) that there won’t be much of an Irish Sea border – and will be called out if it then argues the opposite case for a putative Scotland/Britain border.

The European Parliament’s new president is anyway already insisting not only that any Brexit deal (before any long run trade deal) includes a backstop but also that it includes a commitment to a future level playing field in terms of regulatory standards if it’s to vote for it. The European Parliament will vote on a resolution on these issues next week – the draft resolution also condemning the UK’s treatment of EU citizens (and the growing percentage of those citizens being given ‘pre-settled status’ not settled status (in July reaching a shocking 42%)).

But back in the realm of the UK’s introverted, collapsing politics, the focus at best is on an extension to Article 50 and a general election – perhaps forced through with a vote of no confidence in the government and the brief installation of a temporary government to make that request then dissolve parliament for elections. Some argue there should be a second EU referendum before rather than after a general election. But the UK’s fractured, fractious and currently suspended parliament looks incapable of putting together a temporary government that would last long enough to oversee a further referendum – a process that would take several months. Even to do so for an Article 50 request looks challenging – the opposition/rebel alliance is made up of a stubborn diversity of views on where next.

A general election, perhaps by early December, could throw up a whole range of scenarios – a still grid-locked Westminster, a Labour minority government, a Tory slight majority (or perhaps larger with a no deal Brexit pact with Nigel Farage). A minority Labour government would need, quite likely, LibDem and SNP support and would surely stick to its (however confused) policy of having a further EU referendum – and would be pushed by the SNP for a Section 30 order to have a second independence referendum too. Polls have suggested since the start of 2018, that ‘remain’ would win such a second EU vote, but the margins are still too close for comfort (around 53% remain in current polls).

If it was a Tory government again, whether it could agree a Brexit deal or not, or get it through the Commons or not, it would not be able to continue the groundhog day Brexit cycle of the last three plus years – the EU would not weather it. No deal will still be very much on the agenda and sooner rather than later.

Overall, uncertainty still reigns supreme – as it has throughout the last three plus years while the political crisis becomes more acute and more desperate day by day. The UK may or may not still Brexit. It may do so as early as 31st October or not for a few more months. Or it may stay in the EU after all. However underwhelmed the EU27 might now be at such a prospect, the UK can still unilaterally revoke Article 50 if it chooses to.

But such scenarios, amidst the deepening political and constitutional chaos in the UK, start to look almost beside the point. There is no easy or quick route to mend the divisions within the UK or to repair or even halt the destruction of political trust and stability. The Brexit civil war has a long way yet to run. Yet dealing with those divisions and that civil war while remaining in the EU, rather than while dealing with the effects of no deal or while negotiating from a position of weakness a future trade deal, looks surely preferable.

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.