A way out of the Brexit chaos? Parliament should install a national government

by Professor Iain Begg

Iain Begg is a Professorial Research Fellow at the European Institute and Co-Director of the Dahrendorf Forum, London School of Economics and Political Science.

This article was first published by the LSE Brexit Blog.

12th December 2018

Is there a way out of the Brexit chaos, asks Iain Begg (LSE)? With still no solution in sight for Brexit, the time has come for a more imaginative approach, he writes. The UK’s politicians need to look beyond partisan positions and tactical manoeuvring to find a way of reconciling the many trade-offs – democratic as well as economic – around Brexit.

Instead of a focus on the national interest and how to meet the daunting challenges of maintaining faith in the democratic process, the debate on the end-game of the United Kingdom’s efforts to conclude a deal for its withdrawal from the European Union has been dominated by largely procedural matters. The talk has been of meaningful votes, confidence votes, the likely effects of obscure and incompatible amendments, the details of the Irish border backstop, transitions of fluctuating durations, facilitated customs arrangements and so on. Empty rhetoric on how ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and about the ‘settled will of the people’ adds to the confusion.

Now, the government has executed one of the most spectacular ‘u-turns’ of recent times by postponing a vote in the House of Commons, despite repeatedly saying it would not. By doing so, Prime Minister Theresa May has belatedly accepted what everyone has been telling for weeks: she could not win the vote for the deal she has secured from Brussels.

Yet as the latest episodes of the saga unfold, it has become increasingly clear that the UK political system has failed to comprehend the two fundamental questions it needs to answer. First, what sort of relationship does it want with the EU. Second, what is the mechanism for deciding, given the apparent inability of Parliament to muster a majority for any deal?

What model?

The shape of a future economic relationship between the UK and the EU has been under discussion since well before the 2016 referendum. Although there are many variants, four underlying models can be distinguished.

Remaining in the EU is the first, while the second is the UK being no different from the great majority of the EU’s other global partners inhaving either no privileged access or a trade deal that does not preclude similar deals with other parts of the world. For many advocates of Brexit, this was the choice posed in the referendum and, given the vote to leave, a full (or hard) Brexit should be the outcome.

The trouble with hard Brexit is that it creates obstacles to trading with the nearest neighbours and thus implies lower prosperity. The more sanguine Brexiteers believe any costs will be only short-term and the UK economy will soon benefit from new relationships with dynamic parts of the world, but the consensus is that there will be an economic price to pay forhard Brexit.

This is why two other models have come to the fore. The withdrawal deal May has, for now, opted not to put before the House of Commons included a short and non-binding political statement setting out the expectations of a new arrangement and including provisions for avoiding a hard border in Ireland, an aim all sides agree to be vital.

While it will require long and hard negotiations, the essence of the May deal for a future relationship is that the UK would no longer be part of the single market, delivering an end to free movement of EU workers, but would stay close to the customs union. The UK would also no longer be bound by the EU’s common policies on agriculture and fisheries. However, until mutually acceptable arrangements for the Irish border can be devised, the UK would have to accept a ‘backstop’, which could mean a border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Latterly, objections to the May deal have seen a resurgence of interest in a model similar to the one Norway has with the EU. It would preclude more than token curbs on free movement of workers, require the UK to continue paying into the EU and would mean the UK having to conform to many EU rules it had little scope to influence. But it would mean relatively little economic disruption and costs. Some of those calling for the Norway model have the rather fanciful view that it could be an interim arrangement.

How to decide?

The binary choice in the referendum did not allow for the latter two options, both of which have been vilified as ‘BRINO’ – Brexit in name only – and it is worth recalling that May insisted shortly after becoming Prime Minister that there would be ‘no attempts to sort of stay in the EU through the back door’. But because they are adjudged to be less damaging for the British economy, they offer a potential compromise.

As a representative democracy, the ‘normal’ means of decision-making in the UK is through Parliament voting by simple majority on legislative proposals from the government. In the 2016 referendum, Parliament chose to delegate the decision to the people, but since then government ministers and party politicians have been unable to decide how to implement the result.

As things stand, there is no majority in the House of Commons for any of the four basic options. Tinkering with this or that detail, clarifying the exceptional circumstances in which the Irish backstop would be triggered or amplifying some of the vague promises in the political statement about the future UK-EU relationship will not alter this fact.

Procedural rules in Parliament further complicate matters, but breaking the deadlock will ultimately require the House of Commons to ‘take back control’ and to assemble, and legitimise, a majority for some way forward. It could be to establish a national government (a government of national unity seems implausible…) with a primary mandate of deciding what the country wants as the outcome.

Hard choices will be needed on some of the key elements of the relationship with the EU, such as free movement, the Irish border or the scope for trade and investment deals with other parts of the world. Parliament would then have to decide which of the four models best reconciles the tensions between the different priorities.

There would then be two options. Either Parliament would have to assert its constitutional right to decide and enact the required legislation, or it could revert to asking the people in a further referendum. Accusations of betraying democracy would abound and the national government would have to brace itself for waves of protest, but is there a credible alternative?