Tuesday, 20 November 2018

The Beginning of the Endgame

The failure of the Tory ultras to trigger a leadership challenge to Theresa May was all-too predictable. Their chance to move against her came and went in the first quarter of this year, between the initial Joint Report in December, which introduced the concept of the backstop, and the Prime Minister's letter to Donald Tusk in March, which reaffirmed it. The resignations of Davis, Baker and Johnson in July over the Chequers statement, which set the course for maximum alignment with the EU, showed the ultras to be a busted flush. Their earlier hesitation has proved costly because it has allowed the Prime Minister to yoke her own position to the passage of the Withdrawal bill. Tory MPs keen to avoid a no-deal outcome know that dethroning her would risk calamity, hence the ultras are struggling to get the 48 letters needed to trigger a leadership vote. With little chance of an ardent remainer committed to a referendum re-run or an ultra committed to no-deal entering Number 10, May is probably the only viable option for the majority of her party's MPs, so a leadership contest held now is likely to reinstate her. Had the ultras pushed harder ten months ago they would have had a better chance of convincing their colleagues that a change of course was feasible in the time remaining. You could never accuse May of being artful, but her dogged persistence has managed to shut down the alternatives.

If she is defeated in the Commons on the Withdrawal bill might May agree to a second referendum? I doubt it. Pragmatically, she knows that a second vote wouldn't secure either her government or her continued leadership of the Conservative Party. Psychologically, it would be an admission that she had failed to carry out the instruction of June 2016. What friendly voices refer to as May's "grit and determination" is the product of two factors: a lack of imagination (all too evident during the negotiations) and the narcissistic trap of a belief in her own ability to achieve set goals. To quote David Runciman citing Eric Pickles, "She takes a position and then she sticks to it, seeing it as a matter of principle that she delivers on what she has committed to." For example, her "hostile environment" policy is best understood not as innate xenophobia but as a logical if callous attempt to achieve the unreasonable 'tens of thousands' target for immigration committed to in the Tory manifesto. Given her emphasis this week on the ending of free movement as the signal achievement of her deal, not to mention her rehabilitation of Amber Rudd, it looks like she is still determined to hit that target. It is highly unlikely there will be a second referendum while she is Tory leader because that would require her to admit failure in her appointed task of delivering Brexit.

A referendum would need a change in Tory leader or a change in government, but even if one of those happened before March a second ballot doesn't necessarily follow. There is currently no Commons majority for a particular referendum choice. A "people's vote" that was seen as a re-run of 2016 would risk an abstention campaign by disgruntled leavers. Even if remain won with more than 17.4 million votes, the result would be declared illegitimate by many Brexiteers, particularly if turnout was down. This would be a genuine crisis of democracy. A ballot with three options, even if it allowed preference ranking, would not be seen as decisive by many. If a referendum does happen, it is more likely to be a straight binary choice, either between remain and a clearly-understood leave option, or between that leave option and no deal. The former wouldn't be acceptable to leavers if the option was May's deal, their argument being that this was a botched negotiation producing a Hobson's choice. The latter would be a logical progression from 2016 (we voted to leave, now let's vote on the manner of our leaving), and would satisfy the original demand for a popular vote on the terms of departure, but it would clearly not meet the objective of remainers who want to reverse the 2016 result. I don't see a second referendum coming about in the current parliament and I doubt any backbench attempt to add an amendment to that effect to the Withdrawal bill would succeed.

So what are the chances of a general election? Though the DUP might well oppose the government in an initial vote of confidence they might also abstain in the second vote required to trigger a general election under the Fixed Term Parliament Act, thereby avoiding the risk of helping to propel a believer in a united Ireland to Number 10. As its stands, the most plausible route to an election is if May, having been obliged by the Commons defeat to return to the EU27 (she has a short window for this), tables a revised Withdrawal bill that is also defeated (this assumes the Labour right don't finally play their "country before party" card). Given that we would then be imminently facing the prospect of crashing out without a deal by default in March, she might decide to seek an extension of Article 50 to secure more time for negotiation. The EU27 would probably see this as pointless: they would struggle to cede more ground and suspect that no deal negotiated by May will pass in the Commons. The one circumstance under which I think they would agree an extension would be if May made the ultimate sacrifice and committed to a general election to break the domestic deadlock. That implies her admitting that she had failed - a big ask - but it has the virtue of allowing her to feel that she had done her constitutional duty.

Though there is little political affinity between the EU's mostly centre-right governments and Corbyn, they might calculate that a Labour administration could produce a deal. Various centrists have dismissed Labour's claim that a re-negotiation would be possible in the three months between a snap general election in December and the March deadline. Their reasoning is that there simply isn't enough time and that the EU27 have no reason to change their stance. This assumes that the last two years of dither and incompetence were a reflection of the complexity of the Withdrawal Agreement. In fact, the formal agreement is limited to only three substantive issues: money, citizens' rights and the Northern Ireland border. The first two were resolved months ago. The contortions the government has gone through to keep the DUP onside till the last possible moment have resulted in aspects of the future trading relationship being brought forward into the Withdrawal Agreement scope (specifically the political declaration addendum), most notably the idea of a UK-wide customs union with the EU. That was a significant concession by the EU27.

A new government (let's assume a Labour one) could reach a new agreement with the EU within a relatively short space of time by the simple expedient of agreeing to the EU's original terms: Northern Ireland to remain within the EU single market and customs union and the UK to commit to a future relationship based on the menu of established options outlined by Michel Barnier last December. While this would be presented by Brexiteers and unionists as abject surrender, it simply means acknowledging that Northern Ireland is a special case (which the UK conceded with the Good Friday Agreement) and that the future relationship between Great Britain and the EU would be consistent with precedent. This would also be more acceptable to the EU27 members, some of whom are already expressing reservations about the concessions made to the UK. Such an agreement would defer the haggling over the specifics of the future relationship (limits on state aid, freedom of movement, agriculture and fisheries, the status of Gibraltar etc) to the transition period, which the EU have already indicated they would extend. It's not without its flaws, but it's a credible stance.

How might a general election before March pan out? It seems unlikely that May would lead the Conservative Party into it, not just because her Brexit strategy would have failed but because of the traumatic experience of 2017. Though a party contest just before a popular vote would complicate matters, it is hard to imagine May successfully insisting that she stay on to provide "strong and stable" leadership. A Tory campaign led by a Brexit ultra and fought on no deal would almost certainly crash and burn, and I doubt Boris Johnson arguing for a vague "Canada super-plus" that would be tantamount to no deal would make much difference. A remainer standing on a platform similar to Labour's (i.e. de facto EEA membership and a customs union) would be an implicit admission that the last two years were wasted, not to mention an invitation to vote Labour for other reasons, such as ending austerity or abolishing tuition fees. Between those two options there would only be a rehash of May's rejected deal. Though pundits have long derided Labour's failure to open up a large lead in the polls, the movement in recent days suggests that Tory support has been buoyed by a determination to give May a chance to deliver an acceptable Brexit, but that the deal on offer doesn't look like one.

The increasing likelihood of a general election and a Labour government under Corbyn has triggered centrists. While the FBPE crowd has started to suggest that the chaos of a looming no deal will bounce the country into a people's vote, commentators like John Harris have started to accuse the Labour leadership of wishing for creative destruction: "While some of us have been spitting feathers about the deceptions perpetrated by rightwing leavers, Jeremy Corbyn has seemed barely interested. Is there some kind of awful equivalence between the rightwing Brexiteers, who see national crisis as the ideal seedbed for a free-market utopia, and leftwingers who think socialism is similarly best assisted by disaster?" Coming from someone who built a career indulging "legitimate concerns" the idea that he has been spitting feathers over leaver deceptions, most of which were either directly or indirectly linked to immigration, is a bit rich. To make matters worse, Harris reverts to patronising the British public for incorrectly diagnosing the country's problems and blaming the EU for the evils of Conservative rule: "In an awful instance of irony, the misery and resentment sown by the deindustrialisation the Tories accelerated in the 1980s and the austerity they pushed on the country 30 years later were big reasons why so many people decided to vote leave".

There is nothing ironic about this. Even pragmatic remain voters recognise that the EU is not a progressive project and that it's policies on the free movement of capital played a key role in the deindustrialisation that affected Western Europe in the 80s and Eastern Europe in the 90s. It surely hasn't escaped Harris's notice that the ECB has been pushing a policy of austerity throughout the Eurozone. His suggestion that left and right are united by some Horseshoe Theory of Chaos is sixth form stuff, but it allows him to avoid asking what Corbyn has been spending his time talking about since he became leader, which has often been austerity and under-investment. On Sunday on Sky News the Labour leader said: "I have discussed with Michel Barnier the communities that have seen no investment since the end of the miners strike - nothing from new infrastructure. Communities are likely to be against the institutions that have failed to deliver it for them". Instead of noting Corbyn's insight - that for many people the EU is more associated with Thatcherism than the Erasmus Programme - the sages of centrism promptly derided the Labour leader for failing to spot metal signs celebrating EU infrastructure funding dotted around the country.

A trope of recent commentary is that Britain is once more suffering because of  an intractable "Irish question". In reality, there hasn't been an Irish question in Britain since 1922, though there has certainly been a British question in Ireland. Like the vogueish "English question" that surfaced after the Scottish Independence referendum, this manoeuvre has historically been deployed to transfer responsibility for the failings of the UK state onto the people. John Harris's claim that the Northern working class were gulled by duplicitous rightwingers into rejecting the warm embrace of the EU is another variation on this, and a continuation of an intellectual heritage that goes all the way back to Plato's belief in the people's lack of judgement and vulnerability to demagogues. The brutal strategies of deindustrialisation and austerity were not the work of some marginal chancers but the ruling consensus of the politico-media class. I have no idea whether we'll get a snap general election or a second referendum, or whether Theresa May will be able to cobble together enough votes to get her deal through Parliament, but I sense we are approaching a wider endgame than just the withdrawal phase of Brexit.


  1. Thanks for the clear analysis.

    Anybody got any sense of perspective on the Brexit crisis?

    JoJo says “failure of British statecraft on a scale unseen since the Suez crisis”.

    People died over Suez, mainly Egyptians. As far as I know no one is yet dead over Brexit.

    Is this just poor UK government, of which there has been lots in the past or is it something different? Does the UK government make more mistakes than the French or German governments, or just different ones?

  2. Sorry I forgot Jo Cox.
    So at least one person dead over Brexit.