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Thursday, 13 December 2018

Indecision

Theresa May's victory in the Conservative Party leadership confidence vote yesterday was typical of the history of Brexit: apparently decisive, but not really. It doesn't change the parliamentary arithmetic for her deal (if anything it makes the scale of opposition to it look more daunting), but it does potentially change her future options, not least because she is now insulated from a leadership challenge until December 2019. That's small comfort but it might have a marginal effect.

One implication is that a no-deal Brexit is now less likely. Various centrist commentators and lawyers (often the same person) have noted that we will automatically exit the EU on the 29th of March unless a Withdrawal Agreement is enacted before that date. Others on the centre-right have taken the pessimistic view that even if May eventually wins the "meaningful vote" with the support of Labour rebels, the actual withdrawal legislation (a set of enabling bills) might still founder due to the flakiness of that support, leading to the same no-deal outcome. Both of these "accidental Brexit" scenarios assume that May wouldn't pull the emergency cord by requesting an extension to the Article 50 notice period. That calculation was based less on her assurances, which have repeatedly been shown to be worthless, than on the premise that to do so would result in a leadership challenge with a high chance of success: she would have failed in her brief to deliver Brexit on schedule and she would have created the opportunity for a new leader to revisit the negotiations, so uniting all Tory factions against her. Getting that challenge out of the way this week means she is now in a better position to pull the cord, though it's by no means certain she could survive the consequences.

Some of the 200 who voted for her last night, and most of the 117 who voted against, are deal sceptics (there can't be many who don't want her as leader but like her plan). Adding in the DUP, this means she is around 140 votes short. Even if she improbably got most of the Tories on side, she would still need to persuade a large chunk of opposition MPs to support the government. While some Labour right-wingers facing disgruntled constituency parties might rebel and burn their boats, there is nowhere near the number she needs. Given the government has announced that the 21st of January is a deadline for the rescheduled meaningful vote, I also suspect that May believes she cannot string this charade out for much longer. She might do determined but she doesn't do collegiate: trying to form a government of national unity with Chuka Umunna is no more her style than being nice to George Osborne. Now she is nominally secure in her party leadership, she has every reason to ask the EU27 for more time, and while they will grumble, they will also want to avoid a damaging no-deal default, so it's hard to imagine them refusing. Ultimately, the EU27 will make the same calculation as British politicians: if Parliament cannot agree a way forward, there will have to be either a general election or a second referendum, and that means more time.

The one thing that hasn't become more likely this week is that second referendum, at least not in the short-term. There isn't a majority in the Commons for one because there isn't a consensus on what the choices would be, and there is little reason to believe that a consensus will emerge before March. If May's deal is finally rejected by the House, then that clarifies matters by removing one option, however it is doubtful that there would then be a majority for a binary choice between remain and no-deal. There are many, both remainers and soft-Brexiteers, reluctant to risk a vote for no-deal while supporters of it are against the need for another referendum. Theresa May herself is unlikely to support such a vote because either outcome would heap odium on her: for having betrayed Brexit or for having driven the country into a ditch. A three-option vote is possible, but Norway+ couldn't be offered unless both EFTA and the EU agreed its terms in advance, while Labour's 6 tests are the opening position for a negotiation rather than a final deal. Realistically, an extension would be required to develop a third option, after which a consensus on a referendum might then emerge.


The likelihood of a snap general election being called by the government before March has increased, despite May's carefully-worded promises this week that she has no "intention" of calling one and won't lead the Tories into the next scheduled election in 2022. This wasn't really a concession. After the trauma of 2017, it was generally accepted that the Conservative Party wouldn't allow her to stay as leader beyond 2020. From May's perspective a snap election is a forbidding prospect, but it also looks like it may be the final throw of the dice for her deal, assuming the EU confirms there will be no real change to the terms of the backstop and there remains no chance of getting it through this parliament. She is obviously not an instinctive gambler, but she may feel that she has no other option, particularly if her own core supporters on the remain wing of the party start to inch towards the humiliation (in her eyes) of Norway+. It would allow her to take her deal to the country as the only outcome that both secures a meaningful Brexit and avoids no-deal. While Labour could counter that pitch by offering to reset the clock and secure a better deal, that would obviously be a more nebulous proposition. May would emphasise the certainty of her deal (that it is anything but certain in its detailed application will largely be lost in the noise).

It would be a high-risk strategy. She couldn't force Tory candidates to campaign in support of her deal, and constituency parties aren't going to deselect no-deal rebels who reflect their members' own views. However, she may calculate that an absolute majority in the Commons would allow her enough room to dump the DUP, though I doubt she'd have either the imagination or inclination to agree an Irish Sea border, thereby removing Great Britain from the constraints of the backstop. With a defeated Labour in the throes of a new leadership contest of its own, she might hope to pick up enough votes from across the aisle to carry the day, but that seems unlikely without a large Tory majority to begin with. Alternatively, Labour might win. Her deal isn't popular and despite the sympathy for her position there are few who consider her to be a good premier. With Labour expanding the campaign to austerity and other issues, she will be at a disadvantage defending her unimpressive record, and attacking Labour on traditional issues such as national security and economic competence might well backfire in the context of a deal considered by many to be either a national betrayal or an embarrassment.

The bottom line is, to coin a phrase: nothing (much) has changed. The threat of a no-deal outcome has always been overblown, as you would expect, both by the EU27 in its negotiations with the UK and in May's negotiations with Parliament. May's deal is almost certain to be rejected by the Commons and a referendum before March remains highly unlikely, whatever the People's Vote campaign claims. Though the odds on a snap general election have shortened a bit, they remain odds-against. What has become more likely is that May will seek an extension to the Article 50 notice period, though ironically it would probably be her last substantive act as Prime Minister. Labour would have grounds to hope that a subsequent motion of no confidence in the government would be supported by enough of the Tory ultras to unseat her, thereby indirectly achieving what the ERG failed to do this week. Per the Fixed Term Parliament Act, the Tories would then have to form a new administration, but by then the momentum for a general election might be unstoppable. Whatever happens, the one thing this week has confirmed is that Theresa May's premiership is on its last legs, though I think we already knew that.

7 comments:

  1. At present she seems to be metaphorically residing in Hitler's bunker, hoping that some kind of political miracle will come and save her. I honestly can't see why an extension would solve much, because to even ask for one exposes just what a position of weakness she is in, while I can't see what else the EU will be able of willing to offer. In essence, the only advantage of an extension is to allow more time to prepare for 'no deal', and short of a coup d'├ętat or some other unconstitutional manoeuvre to get rid of May, I think that's what we've always been heading for.

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  2. Don't write May off yet. She appears to have responded logically to the EU trap of article 50 by using the same tactic against her own rebels. By following a Cunctator (delay) strategy she eventually forces the ERG into line by forcing them deeper into a decision corridor that narrows onto the 29 March vanishing point, and leaving her deal as the only possible outcome. The rebels are confronted with the impossibility of achieving a parliamentary vote for no deal (which some would like), and an extension or even suspension of Article 50. Assuming no revocation of Article 50 (the end of her strategy) then extension implies some kind of national vote - Election or referendum, both of which the rebels also fear as they may lose the chance of Brexit altogether. Once they noisily fold back into line (minus DUP and half a dozen diehards) she then uses the same argument against Labour - 'Back me or lose Brexit'. If labour refuse to vote for her (maybe minus the blue labour gang), she goes to an election under the slogan -'vote for Brexit with me and my deal, or vote for the labour Brexit saboteurs. Labour may think twice about that, since would they not rather May take the UK out for them. Everything depends on Labour's decision about the most favourable terrain to fight an election (since they would need to vote for it for it to happen given the fixed term act). The first year of a Corbyn administration would come under massive sabotage attack from Capital. They need to be positioned as the remain establishment and EU friend to survive this, but still deliver Brexit or else lose their northern marginals. When is the best time for an election for Labour? Before March 29 or after??

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    1. I don't think you can characterise May's strategy as one of delay. She was impulsive in triggering Article 50 and in drawing red lines in her Lancaster House speech. She hoped to push her deal through the Commons almost as soon as agreement had been reached with the EU27, and is now talking about bringing it back in early January rather than waiting till the 11th hour.

      The 29th of March isn't a choke-point and I don't believe any of the key players have thought it was for some time now. Today, Leo Varadkar has pretty much invited the UK to ask for an extension on the notice period.

      Labour's problem is that the most likely route to an election is if the DUP vote the Tories out, but the most propitious terrain for them to fight that election on would be a split NI-GB strategy (the former to remain in the EU, the latter to be semi-detached with a bespoke CU & partial SM deal with the EU). It's not obvious how that would come about.

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    2. Agreed that March 29 is not a legal fait accompli, (as many ERG people are telling themselves), and can be extended without parliamentary consent, at least technically, so there may never be a vote on a 'no deal', but March 29 is still a political choke point precisely because the no deal preparations have not been made - deliberately not made. So when they eventually realise that no deal is not on the table, how many Brexit Tory MPs are really willing to accept an extension or nullification of Article 50 as preferable to May's deal, especially if she gets some side letter from the EU (meaning here the Irish) that can be read as some kind of time limit on the backstop (backstop to the backstop). If not this 'delay to the line then play chicken with the fate of the party strategy' then what was her strategy?? If her plan isn't to force capitulation on the rebels what on earth was the plan? To call her a 5th column remainer seems wrong, as unlike every other player in the game she appears sincere in her desire to deliver her deal, even if she appears completely untrustworthy in her methods to get it.

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    3. I'm not sure that May has ever had a coherent strategy. Her actions suggest she is simply responding to events and, while she is clear on her own objectives (exit the EU on time and end freedom of movement), she has shown little evidence that she knows how best to achieve them.

      It was a mistake to trigger Article 50 without having determined what sort of Brexit might command a majority in the Commons, and it was a mistake to draw red lines in her 2017 conference and Lancaster House speeches. Why did she make those strategic errors? Because she didn't feel secure enough to face down the ultras & a baying press.

      Last December she was humiliated by Arlene Foster, suggesting she had failed to get the DUP properly onside and (like most Tories) simply did get the sensitivities over the Irish border. By drawing more red lines ruling out a regulatory NI/GB border she committed herself to the cul de sac of the backstop.

      She has narrowed down her options to the point where she can see no alternative to her deal but also knows it cannot command support. There are a number of ways of escaping this trap - extend the notice period, call an election, table a referendum - but I suspect that if she chooses one it will be in response to events beyond her control rather than a strategic calculation on her part.

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    4. Ok, maybe I read too much into her actions and she has no strategy as such, but as General Melchett reminds us - if nothing else, then a stubborn refusal to look facts in the face will get us through - And it still just might for May.

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  3. On the chokepoint, the exit day in the Withdrawal Act can be altered by ministerial order if Art.50 is extended. No need to go to parliament.

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