Brexit: A national government or “no deal”

by Brendan Donnelly
Director, The Federal Trust

18th December 2018

In a recent article for the New York Times, the distinguished historian of the Conservative Party, Professor Tim Bale, argued that the “will to power” of the Conservative Party would enable it in the long term to reconstruct its inner cohesion, currently compromised by the Brexit debate. Professor Bale’s argument is controversial but, even if accurate from a historical perspective, it is highly unlikely to be reflected in the functioning of the Party over the crucial next three months. Last Wednesday’s ballot of Conservative MPs was at best a Pyrrhic victory for the Prime Minister.  The 117 votes recorded against her probably if anything understated the degree of opposition to her proposed texts for the Withdrawal Agreement from the EU and its accompanying Political Declaration. It is clear she cannot possibly rely on her Parliamentary Party to steer these proposals through the House of Commons against the opposition of the Labour Party and others.

But there is no conceivable majority among Conservative MPs for any other course of action either. A divided and dysfunctional Conservative Party is generating a divided and dysfunctional Conservative government. There is no reason at all to believe that this division can be overcome by any sudden outbreak of unity before 29 March 2019. The true lesson of the past tumultuous week in British politics is that no Conservative government is capable of adopting, much less implementing, a coherent alternative position to that of the United Kingdom’s leaving the EU by automatic operation of Article 50 on 29 March 2019. If in three months there is still a Conservative government, then “crashing out” of the EU without a negotiated withdrawal will have become inevitable. That important minority in the Conservative Parliamentary party favourable to this outcome need only persevere in their current obstructionist tactics to gain their goal through the asymmetric workings of Article 50.  Under Article 50 “no deal” emphatically means “no deal.”

There has been much talk in recent days of Parliament’s “taking back control of Brexit.” Amber Rudd has specified cross-party discussions to explore the possibility of a “soft Brexit” involving British membership of the EEA. This particular suggestion seems to rest on a number of questionable assumptions. The issue of British membership of the EEA is not one that in any circumstances can be resolved between now and 29 March  2019. If the EEA option is one the UK wishes to pursue after Brexit, it will need to be painstakingly negotiated with the EU during the “transition period.” The most that the EU might be willing to accept in this connection over the next three months would be changes to the wording of the non-binding Political Declaration, pointing towards future British membership of the EEA. It is more than doubtful however whether such marginal changes would be sufficient to guarantee or even make more likely a Parliamentary majority for the Prime Minister’s “deal.”  Some Labour MPs either favour or could accept an EEA-like arrangement, but the majority do not, including Jeremy Corbyn and Sir Keir Starmer, both of whom for different reasons would have difficulties in accepting the Freedom of Movement at the heart of the EEA. Most importantly, if the EU were to be persuaded at this late stage to make changes to the Political Declaration, it could only be at the pressing and well-grounded request of the sitting British government.  No present or future present Conservative government could ever accept favourable references in the Political Declaration to the EEA and Freedom of Movement. Most pressure on the government from the Conservative Party during the Brexit negotiations has come from precisely the opposite direction, seeking to reduce rather than maintain ties with the EU after Brexit. The EEA can provide no solution to the Conservative government’s present impasse.

The problems illustrated by the impracticality of Amber Rudd’s proposals are not confined, however, to the EEA and its own merits or defects.  Unless the UK is prepared unilaterally to revoke its Article 50 notification the preferences and interests of the 27 other member states in the EU will significantly constrain the UK’s choices and options between now and March 2019. The EU-27 have plausibly insisted that no substantial renegotiation of the Withdrawal Agreement is possible. It is not open to the House of Commons to reopen the negotiations so painfully conducted by the British government over the past eighteen months. The EU, moreover, can only negotiate with the UK’s government, not with any other grouping or current of opinion. If the House of Commons wishes to discuss meaningfully with the EU the course of Brexit over the coming months, it can only do so through the medium of a British government pursuing policies which the Commons endorses. The embarrassing European Council last week was a reminder to the Prime Minister that her colleagues recognise and are increasingly irritated by the fact that she is their only possible British interlocutor, but she is an interlocutor whose words have only limited validity and authority.


More and more MPs see a way out of the current impasse that may be acceptable to the EU and themselves in the shape of a further referendum, particularly one offering a choice between the Prime Minister’s proposed Withdrawal Agreement and remaining in the EU. The democratic rationale for such a further consultation would be that the arrangement negotiated by Mrs. May and her ministers deviated and had to deviate so far from what was offered by the Leave side in the 2016 referendum that the British electorate should be given a chance to reconsider its initial decision. If the electorate wished to stick to that decision, the text negotiated by the Prime Minister leaves open a wide range of future relationships between the UK and the EU, which a future British government would negotiate after 2019. If, however, on further reflection the British electorate wished to remain in the EU, it will be able to do so, as the European Court of Justice has recently established, on the basis of its established opt-outs and budgetary rebate. For that great majority of MPs who recognise, but are afraid publicly to acknowledge, the damage Brexit will inevitably visit on the British economy and society, a further referendum is extremely attractive as a path back from the abyss. With the above framing of the referendum question the House of Commons would also have precluded what most MPs regard as the disastrous outcome of a “no deal” Brexit, popular although it is among some Conservatives. There is, moreover, good reason to believe that the European Council would be willing to extend the Article 50 negotiating period for some months in order to leave time for such a referendum to be held.

It is, however, extremely unlikely that a Conservative government could ever associate itself with a further referendum, especially one containing “remain” as an option. The radical Eurosceptics who dominate the Conservative Party at every level apart from the Parliamentary Party, which is split, would never tolerate such a course of action. It is a misreading of last week’s ballot of MPs to conclude that the Prime Minister’s room for manoeuvre has been enhanced by her inglorious survival. If the House of Commons comes to conclude, as it may well do, that a “People’s Vote” is the best way forward it will need another government to implement it. The prospect of Theresa May or any other Prime Minister of a Conservative government’s asking for an extension from the European Council of the Article 50 negotiating period strains credulity well beyond breaking-point. The Prime Minister was browbeaten by her Party into an ill-prepared triggering of the Article 50 procedure in March 2017. Any delay beyond March 2019 that cast doubt over any Brexit at all would presage the immediate end of the May premiership and the unleashing of Conservative civil war beyond even that witnessed until now.

If the momentum of shifting opinion towards a new referendum continues, it may well be that in the New Year a potential cross-Party majority emerges for a People’s Vote on the terms described. Indeed, a People’s Vote may well come by that stage to be seen as the only realistic alternative to leaving the EU without a Withdrawal Agreement of any kind. It will be an option particularly attractive to those many Labour MPs who reject a “no deal” Brexit, but who are understandably reluctant to be seen as endorsing the Prime Minister’s Conservative Brexit. As the deadline of 29 March comes closer the realisation can be expected to become more pressing that “no deal” is all that a Conservative government will ever be able to bring about. If the House of Commons as a whole wishes to prevent this outcome by holding a People’s Vote between the Prime Minister’s “deal” and “remain,” it will be compelled to install a new government. Two paths will then present themselves: holding a new General Election and forming a new government from among the current crop of MPs.

A fresh General Election?

The Labour Party leadership now argues for the former option. Critics within and outside Labour have claimed that this is a disingenuous tactic, designed to facilitate Brexit in a way that will be as harmful as possible to the Conservative Party. Whether this criticism is justified or not, it seems in the highest degree unlikely that the Conservative Party or the DUP will be prepared to vote in such a way as to provoke a rapid General Election. Conservative backbenchers are united on only one topic, which is that of the undesirability of installing Jeremy Corbyn in Downing Street. The DUP have strongly suggested that the only circumstance in which they would support a motion of “no confidence” in the government was if ministers seemed likely finally to endorse the Irish backstop, now an unlikely occurrence. Nor is it clear what a General Election would resolve on the European issue. Given its present leadership the Labour Party will be unable to offer a coherent alternative either to the government’s proposals or to “no deal.” The claim that a new Labour government would be able to negotiate rapidly a new and radically more favourable arrangement with the EU while remaining outside the Customs Union and the Single Market is highly implausible. In the event of Mr. Corbyn’s becoming Prime Minister in late March 2019 with such an unrealistic expectation in his mind, the chances of the UK’s leaving the EU with “no deal” would be scarcely less menacing than under a Conservative government. If there is to be a new government to implement a People’s Vote the overwhelming probability is that it will have to come from within the (cross-party) ranks of the current Parliament.

The logical conclusion of the above analysis is that a People’s Vote may well emerge over the coming month as the only realistic alternative to a “no deal” Brexit. A People’s Vote will, however, only be successfully called by a national government, formed of a limited number of Conservative MPs, Labour MPs for the most part and some representatives of smaller parties. This national government would not need to last for much longer than six months, and not necessarily be confined to “remainers.” Once greater clarity had been established on the future course of Brexit, a government based on a new majority in the House of Commons could then be instituted or another General Election held. It would be up to this new government to take the next steps in European policy, whether reintegrating the UK into the EU or negotiating a future relationship between the UK and the EU after Brexit.

It might well be that a new referendum would subject the UK’s current party structures to intolerable strains. The party landscape could look very different after a referendum, and this landscape would inevitably be shaped or reshaped by the referendum’s result. The Conservative Party in particular would then have the opportunity to prove or disprove Professor Bale’s thesis about the Party’s “will to power.” If, as the present polls suggest, Brexit were rejected by the electorate in a People’s Vote, it would require a superhuman effort by the Conservative Party to emancipate itself from thirty years of hatred and fantasy directed against the EU. This hatred and fantasy sit very deep in the collective consciousness of present-day Conservatism. Theresa May’s opposition to a People’s Vote may well stem from a wholly justified fear that, if it were to lose this vote, the Conservative Party could never reconstruct itself. Her predecessor David Cameron has been criticised for seeking to heal the internal wounds of the Conservative Party via a botched referendum. The historical irony would be complete if the final consequence of the Cameronian referendum in 2016 were to destroy by another referendum in 2019 the Conservative Party completely.