Saturday, 12 January 2019


In politics, as in so much else, timing is everything. It is a self-evident, even banal point, but one that is routinely ignored in favour of the idea of agency: that politicians are able to decide and act as and when they wish, independent of other factors. David Cameron's decision to call a referendum on EU membership after 6 years of austerity was an example of bad timing, if we assume that material conditions had some bearing on the outcome, as much as it was evidence of thoughtless agency. Theresa May's elevation to the leadership of the Conservative Party owed a lot to fortunate timing: being the last woman standing after the other candidates withdrew, so avoiding the need to win the vote of a membership that hadn't entirely forgiven her for her "nasty party" crack and that fundamentally disagreed with her on the merits of the EU. The pressure currently being exerted on Jeremy Corbyn to back a second referendum is likewise an example of the over-estimation of agency - the trope of the "magic grandad" who can mandate a people's vote - as well as poor timing. There is no Commons majority for another referendum largely because there is no credible choice available, and that won't change until May's deal is decisively rejected, and probably not even then.

Labour's strategy is neither as incoherent nor opaque as right-wing and centrist commentators have claimed. The key to it isn't a desperate triangulation to keep both remainers and leavers happy but a simple calculation on the optimum timing of a popular vote. A second referendum (or third, if you include 1975) has always been likely as a formal confirmation (or considered rejection) of Brexit. The 2016 vote wasn't clear enough to provide a mandate for either the withdrawal terms or the likely compromises entailed by the future relationship, and Parliament is accurately reflecting sentiment in the country by failing to agree a definite preference. Given that Theresa May is unlikely to call a popular vote, the best route to one would be through a Labour government. Though they might stand on a manifesto of negotiating a better deal, they are also likely to commit to a further referendum, both because this would be the only way of putting Brexit conclusively to bed, either by opting for a specific future relationship or remaining in the EU, and because it incentivises remainers to vote Labour. The recent claims that Labour would rule out a second referendum and so ensure electoral disaster ignore not only the party's agreed policy but its self-interest.

Danny Finkelstein is alert to the possibility: "By the way, the Labour Party is now toying with fighting an election proposing a renegotiation with Brussels which would be followed by a public vote. In this vote, would they back leaving the EU? Or are they seriously suggesting they renegotiate a deal which they then urge voters to reject by recommending we stay in the EU after all? Brussels would certainly want that. So you’d have two sides negotiating a withdrawal agreement that both hope would fail. I think we can safely scrub that one off the list of sensible ideas." I think we can safely say the Tories are worried at the prospect. Labour's approach would honour the 2016 result, it would satisfy both Labour leavers and cross-party remainers, and it would explicitly remove the risk of no-deal. Of course, getting to that point requires both an extension to the A50 notice period and a general election win, and is complicated by the impending European Parliament elections in May, but it remains both within the bounds of the possible and the best strategy for Labour in the circumstances.

Though the commentariat has generally assumed that May is deliberately running down the clock in the belief that MPs will eventually get behind her deal as the only way of preventing a no-deal outcome, it is also true that circumstances are narrowing her options. Her track record, both as a remainer and someone who dissembles, means that many MPs think she is bluffing and would not allow no-deal if push came to shove. The delay of the meaningful vote on the Withdrawal Agreement, the likelihood that the government will be defeated next week, and the Grieve amendment requiring May to present a plan B within 3 days collectively point to an imminent crisis. She will probably survive a vote of no confidence moved by Labour, even if Corbyn formally commits to renegotiation plus a final referendum, because Tory remainers are still Tories (Soubry will no doubt accuse the Labour frontbench of "playing politics"). A plan B is unlikely to alter the Commons arithmetic unless May proposes a substantive change such as a permanent customs union, effectively stealing Labour's clothes. The approaches made to some trade union leaders in recent days may suggest a testing of the water.

I suspect that a permanent customs union would be a step too far for her. Though there are rumours that it is under consideration, it would still allow Labour to say "not good enough", even with the addition of various promises on workers' rights and environmental protections. The optics would be terrible - the government in a subservient position to Corbyn - and it would alienate those Tories for whom the prospect of independent trade deals and reduced regulation are among the chief attractions of Brexit (surely Liam Fox would finally have to resign). May's deal is a mess, but it is also the best she can do in the circumstances created by her red lines. A move towards either a harder or softer Brexit would lose as many votes as it gained. Though there is a large bloc of Labour MPs in leave-voting constituencies who would be happy if the government adopted something closer to their party's approach, few of them would be willing to defy the whip and vote for it, while the Blairite remainers on the backbenches, who might defy the whip, seem to have concluded in recent months that putting country before party would be self-defeating, as it would cede the moral high ground to Corbyn in the struggle for the hearts and minds of party members.

If we assume the Withdrawal Agreement is decisively rejected next week, then May will have painted herself into a corner. She might decide to request an extension to the Article 50 notice period, but that would only be agreeable to the EU27 if she justified it by plans for either a general election or a second referendum. As the latter cannot at present command a majority in the Commons, it would have to be the former, but that would prompt informal but probably irresistible pressure for her to step down as party leader once the extension was agreed, despite being safe from a formal internal challenge for the next 11 months. In the circumstances, calling a snap election, so there wouldn't be time for a leadership contest, would be her best bet, her poor track record in this area notwithstanding. 2017 was an error of timing. She failed to see that the narrative of austerity had shifted since 2015 from blame Labour to blame the Tories, and she underestimated how damaging to her chances a lengthy campaign would be. Her circumstances now are that she has run out of time and may have no option but to roll the dice once more.


  1. What a mess! If May is to snap an election, then I suppose she has to seek an Art.50 extension simultaneously, but can she do that without parliament's permission under the Miller principle? I guess she can, since it doesn't remove rights granted by parliament. But how on earth does her party's vote hold together when she has deferred Exit Day (she'll also have to defer it by order under the Withdrawal Act) and diluted Leave with a customs union that is irrelevant to achieving single market access?

    I've been trying to figure out if a Fixed Term motion of no confidence path to a general election can squeeze in a polling day by 29 March. Yves Smith argues that the timetable makes it certain polling day will fall after that date (which May calculated way back), while another source gives a window of 14-21 March. Any views?

    1. Under the FTPA, Parliament is dissolved 25 working days before election day, so a campaign could be as short as 5 weeks. Assuming May called one, she would probably want to keep it short and focused on Brexit, to prevent Labour shifting the debate to austerity etc.

      The 2017 campaign was just over 7 weeks. There are 7 weeks between next Friday (the 18th) and the 29th of March. In the circumstances, I doubt May would seek an A50 extension. It would make more sense to fight the election on the basis that the Withdrawal Agreement would be passed before the 29th of March.

      Labour would have to fight the election on the basis that they would invoke an extension immediately on taking office to alow time for renegotiation and possibly a further referendum. This would be presented by the Tories as "delaying Brexit", with the implication that Brexit might not happen under a Labour government.

      As you note, May's problem is to hold her own party together. That's always been her priority and her current deal is designed to do this. For that reason, I doubt she'd commit to a permanent customs union immediately ahead of a snap election, nor would she do a volte-face and commit to a no-deal "clean break". Both would divide the Tories, perhaps irrevocably.

      She would have to fight on her current deal: "taking it to the people". Were she to win a Commons majority (with no need for DUP support), on the promise of a half-loaf Brexit, I suspect she would then get enough Labour MPs onside to offset the dwindling number of Tory ERG and remainer rebels and so pass the Withdrawal Agreement.

    2. Cheers! I never learned to use a slide rule.

      My impression is that Labour is circling in expectation of a landing patch for associate membership - the sizzle for the EU is that it ultimately provides a common rule for EFTA and Switzerland, edges out Greece and Hungary, and maybe provides a solution for Ukraine, even Turkey. So big stakes.

      I just enjoy watching the Tories tumble down the Brexit stairwell, smacking their head off each step. Mustn't snigger, but nor must one discount the prospect that they get to their feet, click the broken neck back in place, and stalk up the stairs with their talons out.

      May is the only option for the Tories prior to the scheduled exit-day (immune to 1922 attack, no deputy can replace her executive function if she dead parrots - plus there's no appointed deputy). Defiance of her decisions risks getting HRM involved. She can threaten no-deal Brexit, Art.50 notice revocation (effectively no-Brexit?), and GE pre- or post-exit-day. The one reservation is she could agree extension and alter exit-day, all by her executive authority, and then step down to be succeeded by ... Javid?

      Corbyn is wise to hold everything in reserve.


  2. I have no idea why the Tory party are not being pilloried from pillar to post over the fact they put into their manifesto an epoch making decision and didn't even bother to undertake any research into what that decision might entail!

    That level of incompetence is beyond staggering.

    Actually I do know why they get a relatively easy ride and it is the media.

    Incidentally, I didn't spot some questions to my comments in a previous thread, I have now provided answers, of sorts!

    See here:

  3. Is there a box set of Brexit available anywhere? I just want to skip to the end now.