The UK’s Brexit Breakdown

Kirsty Hughes | 18 January 2019

Elizabeth Tower, UK Parliament (Jessica Taylor), CC-BY-NC-2.0

The Westminster Brexit show teeters on without resolution. The looming deadline of 29th March is provoking some MPs into finding ways to take no deal off the table. But what is lacking – and is fundamental both to the crisis and to any resolution of it – is a majority at Westminster for anything, together with an absence of any serious political leadership in the two main parties.

Some say there is a remain majority amongst MPs at Westminster. But if there was in 2016, it’s certainly not visible today. Neither a people’s vote nor revoking Article 50 and staying in the EU without a vote yet has anything close to a majority in the Commons. Public opinion has changed – the most recent poll putting remain at 56%. So the UK’s crisis is not one of parliament ignoring the 2016 vote. Rather it’s a crisis of parliament not reflecting the support in the UK for remain – and the support, in many polls, for another referendum.

Hunting the Elusive Snark of a Brexit Majority

This lack of a remain majority at Westminster would suggest there’s an elusive majority for Brexit still. But that is probably too rational a deduction. The extreme Brexiters of the ERG Rees Mogg group appear now only to want a no deal Brexit. But others will not vote for that, so the ERG’s best hope is that no deal happens out of the continuing chaotic implosion of UK politics as the 29th March deadline arrives. It could still do so.

Others want (if that’s not too strong a word) May’s deal – that garnered its pitiful 202 votes on Tuesday. Worth remembering of course that May’s deal is quite unclear, in the political declaration, on where the future UK-EU relationship is heading. So May’s deal would also mean or have meant repeat chaotic and tortuous scenes as Westminster tried to work out its negotiating position after the UK left the EU – hampered and hemmed in by the (very necessary) backstop and by the UK’s then weak bargaining position as a third country but most of all hampered by the overarching failure and crisis of UK politics.

Then there’s the ‘Norway plus’ Brexiters – who think shadowing EU membership via the single market and customs union while giving up the seat at the table, voice and vote would be politically sustainable, good enough and, in some bizarre way, meet the ‘mandate’ of the leave vote of 23 June 2016. If this garnered cross-party support, who would implement it? It’s possible, just, to imagine a cross-party ‘national unity’ government to oversee another EU referendum but to negotiate the provisions of a ‘soft’ Brexit? It would seem to need a permanent re-alignment of both the Tories and Labour – requiring major splits to happen first. And it would not heal leave/remain divisions as leave voters see it’s just an outer, rule-taking circle of the EU and both leave and remain voters can see it’s giving away not increasing sovereignty.

These Norway plus Brexiters merge somewhere along the spectrum into the backers of a permanent customs union i.e. Corybn, some of his cabinet, some Tory cabinet members (it seems) and a varied assortment of MPs.

Of course, if Westminster backed a permanent customs union, it could hardly complain about the not-quite-temporary one in the backstop. But without full single market membership, and a deal on agriculture and fisheries too, a customs union won’t stop differentiated treatment for Northern Ireland, help the UK’s services sector (80% of the economy), take back control (following EU trade policy without a vote and probably most of the EU’s regulations), or allow frictionless borders for cross-border supply chains in goods manufacture and other industrial sectors.

It’s not entirely impossible that May and Corbyn could agree a permanent customs union as a cross-party form of Brexit – even while their ‘I won’t speak to you unless you follow my pre-conditions’ stand-off makes it looks rather tricky. Such a deal, if it happened, might lead to a split in the Tory party. May will resist causing that but may soon run out of road on that one – her authority and standing already completely shot. And, given the disastrous Brexit mess and political and constitutional crisis that the Brexit Tories have created, a split in the Tory party is surely one part of a path to the UK’s or England’s politics mending itself (however many years or decades that may take).

But could Corbyn survive doing a Brexit deal with May – and would Labour split too (quite possibly)? Perhaps there would be a free vote in the Commons. But then a customs union would have to be negotiated and implemented. Is May, or her successor, really going to do that – or Corbyn after an election, should he win? Can the Commons, post-Brexit – whoever might be the prime minister and form the government – actually manage to alleviate the deep political and constitutional crisis while negotiating a damaging Brexit.

Given the current state of UK politics and the negative impact on business and many other groups – from EU citizens in the UK to universities to NGOs to the health service – and the negative impact on our security from trashing our relationships with our European allies at a time when Trump is undermining the US, the idea that the UK would leave the EU on 29th March then calmly restore its political order while negotiating a disadvantageous customs union is not plausible.

Stopping Brexit

Stopping Brexit, given the two leaders of the two main parties support Brexit, and given neither has the political or leadership skills to respond in any serious way to the depths of the UK’s current crisis, looks hard too. Nor would a general election solve much without a major shift from Corbyn.

And while many MPs are keen to find a way to ensure no deal is taken off the table, it’s hard to do that in a definitive way since MPs still don’t agree on what they are for – and no one’s for budging yet (in a crisis, dig deeper). There is certainly no majority support, yet at least, for the Commons to simply revoke Article 50 – asserting parliamentary democracy alongside political and economic common sense – which is the only definitive way to stop Brexit.

There’s much more support for extending Article 50 to avoid crashing out. That sits squarely within Westminster’s collective comfort zone as it doesn’t mean a resolution of the crisis, it just kicks it down the road a way – the increasingly mad in-fighting can then continue. Whether the EU might go along with a short extension (a couple of months) even without Westminster showing any signs of knowing how to resolve the deep political crisis is, at best, an open question. The EU might, just perhaps, do that as a chaotic, no deal Brexit looms – desired only by the ERG Tory right minority – but more likely they would not.

Some in the EU would, despite all, like the UK to stay – see the extraordinary political letter from Germany’s top-level cross-party and cross-business and foundations letter on 18th January saying please stay. That’s not a view shared by all, but in the face of the meltdown of UK politics, provoked by the Brexit project, some at least in the EU would like to swing, in any way that’s helpful, behind remain.

And then there’s stopping Brexit by having another EU referendum. Brexiters threaten dire outcomes of such a move. But in the face of an imploding Westminster, the only dire outcome would be if leave won again. Meanwhile, the idiocy of Brexit is shown all too clearly by the fact that while remain would be one choice on the ballot paper, it’s not clear – given the Brexiters elusive snark of a desired, majority Brexit – what the leave option would be (no deal, May’s deal, a customs union and so on) nor whether there would be a majority in parliament to implement the leave outcome if it wasn’t clearly specified (or even if it was).

Scotland and Northern Ireland Ignored

And, of course, it’s not only the economy and the UK’s parliament that’s creaking and collapsing under the strain. The UK’s devolution settlement has been damaged and weakened by Brexit and shown not to be fit for purpose.

Nicola Sturgeon talks of an announcement about plans on independence and another referendum in weeks – while also demanding a people’s vote and remain for the UK as a whole. At least the third party at Westminster has a clear Brexit strategy, unlike the Tories or Labour, whatever the irony that the party that wants to leave the UK has the most rational, clear approach (as does the fourth party, the Lib Dems).

Meanwhile Northern Ireland still has no executive nor assembly, and the fact Northern Irish voters prefer remain or, if there is to be Brexit, want the backstop to be in place is as ignored at Westminster as are Scottish remain views. In Scotland, SNP, Labour, LibDem and Green voters all strongly back remain and a people’s vote. But it’s the two independence parties – the SNP and Greens – who now support both of those, alongside the unionist LibDems. Meanwhile, Labour’s Scottish leader continues to back Corbyn on Brexit – and the Scottish Tories, as split as their English counterparts over May’s deal, are all pro-Brexit.

The Deepening Crisis

There is no simple route for the UK’s politicians out of this crisis – a crisis that afflicts the whole UK but as many have pointed out is, in essence, an English crisis of English identity, history and politics. There is a clear need, at a minimum, for a major shake up of both the main political parties – beyond that a written constitution and different voting system would be on any sane list. But a major political and constitutional reform or revolution cannot be achieved in the midst of a panicked two month countdown to a no deal Brexit. It may start in that window but it won’t end there.

So the UK continues to face either Brexit (deal or not) or no Brexit. Westminster may yet stagger towards an adapted, customs unionised version of May’s deal. It might, hopefully, as the pressures grow, find a way to halt Brexit. But neither outcome will stop the fundamental failing and crisis of the UK’s politics.

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.