Michael Gove’s acknowledgement that trade between the UK and
the EU after 1st January 2021 will be far from frictionless is a watershed in
the Brexit process. The claim that Brexit would not significantly impinge upon
British trade with the European Union was central to the 2016 Leave campaign.
So central indeed that government ministers spent the three years thereafter
repeating this dishonest assurance in the face of ever-mounting evidence to the
The UK has the same rules as the EU at this instant – but EU rules are evolving continuously under the pressure of technological change. The main Directive about trading securities is about to be examined later this year – as part of the normal review cycle. The UK will not be at the table when the EU debates reversing a key concession to the UK after the Great Financial Crash. Very technical – Yes, but very significant!
by Dr Andrew Blick Reader in Politics and Contemporary History at King’s College London; Senior Research Fellow at the Federal Trust
14th February 2020
Criticism of the European Union in United Kingdom (UK)
political discourse has often focused upon the proposition that as a project it
is federal in nature. For this reason, according to such theses, membership has
always been incompatible with UK constitutional traditions, and poses an
unwelcome threat to the integrity of the UK as an autonomous ‘sovereign’ state.
It is in its response to such assertions that the supposed pro-European
movement committed what was perhaps its fundamental error. Representatives of
the mainstream integrationist side of the argument allowed themselves to be
imprisoned by the logic that flowed from acceptance of the premise that, from a
UK perspective, the undesirability of federalism was axiomatic. Rather than
challenge this presumption, the typical retort was to claim that the European
Union (EU) (or its predecessors) was not federal in nature; or that any
tendencies in this direction could be diluted or mitigated, and that UK
membership was therefore – at least on balance – desirable.
Brexit day has come and gone. There were Saltires, EU flags
and crowds at the Scottish parliament. But while everything changed as the UK
left the EU, is it, for now, the case that nothing has changed in Scottish
politics? It seems not. It’s early days but the combination of Brexit with
Boris Johnson as prime minister is already impacting on Scotland’s political
dynamics. And that impact is surely only going to strengthen.
Many members of
Coalition” have been disappointed by the role played by the European issue in the
leadership contest of the Labour Party. No candidate has suggested a policy of
continuing opposition to Brexit. Some candidates
have on the contrary sought to argue that Labour’s ambiguous European policy
during the General Election was responsible for alienating potential supporters
favourable to Brexit. Even the
traditionally pro-European Keir Starmer, one of the favourites to succeed
Jeremy Corbyn, has spoken of the General Election as resolving the issue of
Brexit for the foreseeable future and has been unwilling to commit himself to
campaign for British re-entry to the European Union. Such disappointment is
understandable but may be premature. Keir Starmer has a leadership election to
win, and if he wins it his highly-developed forensic skills will come rapidly
to the fore in the dismantlement of the fantasies that underpin most rhetoric in
favour of Brexit. The likelihood must be that if he does become Labour Leader
Starmer will have plentiful opportunity to edge his party towards the
unequivocal opposition to Brexit that most of the Party’s
members and voters would favour. As 2020 goes by it will inevitably become more
difficult for the Labour Party to maintain the theoretical distinction so
beloved of Jeremy Corbyn between his Party’s
opposition to whatever form of Brexit Boris Johnson ends up negotiating and
opposition to Brexit itself.
by Dr Andrew Blick Reader in Politics and Contemporary History at King’s College London; Senior Research Fellow at the Federal Trust
22nd January 2020
In February 2018, when serving as Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson was reported telling journalists that ‘the particular problems around the Irish border are being used to drive the whole Brexit argument and effectively to try to frustrate Brexit’. The following year, he rose to the Conservative leadership and office of Prime Minister. In bidding for this role, a central part of the Johnson campaign was his claim that he could overcome the ‘Irish border’ obstacle to UK departure from the EU, without the need for difficult concessions or compromise on the part of the UK. The course of events that followed, and the arrangement eventually arrived at to enable Brexit, suggest that there was more substance to ‘problems around the Irish border’ than his earlier assertion allowed. Indeed (and given the exclusion of the option of revocation of Brexit) there was no solution entirely satisfactory to any of the parties on offer, though the greatest difficulties were always likely to befall the UK. An issue that Johnson previously sought to dismiss may yet cause substantial difficulties for him and his government, as well as the UK and wider world.
For the outcome of last week’s General Election to have any
chance of postponing or even preventing Brexit, four related pieces of the
electoral jigsaw needed to fall into place. The Labour Party needed to do as
well in votes and seats as in 2017; the Liberal Democrats had to gain more
seats than in 2017; Tory Remainers needed to abandon the Conservative Party in
large numbers; and tactical voting against the Conservatives had to take place
on a substantial scale. Neither of the first two happened and the latter two
did not happen on anything like the required extent. It is now therefore
inevitable that the United Kingdom will leave the European Union on 31st
Corbyn has rarely in recent decades feared political controversy. On issues
such as Ireland, the Middle East, NATO, income redistribution and
renationalisation, he has advocated with candour and persistence views that
have been unattractive, even shocking to many electors. Many of his supporters thereby
hail him as a “conviction politician,” contrasting him favourably with his New
Labour predecessors, tainted as they were by compromise and equivocation in the
search for electoral advantage.
On the central question of Brexit, however, the Leader of the Opposition has struck since 2016 a notably different tone. His policy on Brexit has been by turns vague, mutable, self-contradictory and utopian. Even more strikingly, he has presented himself as seeking compromise to heal divisions on the issue within British society. This supposedly statesmanlike and pragmatic approach culminated in Corbyn’s recent declaration that in the event of a further European referendum held by a government he headed, he would personally remain neutral, as a reassurance to the electorate that he would faithfully carry out its final decision.
faithful adherents have hailed this promised Corbynite neutrality as a
strategic master-stroke, others have seen it as a final and desperate attempt
at compromise between Corbyn’s personal Euroscepticism and the pro-Remain
attitudes of the great majority of his party and voters. It is indeed
extraordinary that the Leader of the Opposition should enter this General
Election holding a position of avowed neutrality on the greatest political,
economic and constitutional question of the day. The strangeness of this stance
is underlined yet further by the intriguing prospect of the Labour Party’s
renegotiating in government the present Withdrawal Agreement with the EU, and
then holding a referendum, in which Corbyn would not support the renegotiated
text and many of his Ministers would actively campaign against it. There is a striking symmetry between the
predicaments of Corbyn and David Cameron. Cameron wanted to stay in the
European Union, but his party would not allow him to do so. Corbyn wants to
leave the European Union but is also held back by his party. Botched attempts
to manage their recalcitrant parties by circumscribed party leaders have been a
recurrent and damaging aspect of the entire Brexit tragi-comedy.
The prominent Brexit commentator Chris Grey’s sense of frustration on watching the ITV debate between Boris Johnson and Corbyn will have been shared by many. But those still hoping to put a spoke in the wheels of Brexit on 12th December would be ill-advised to resort to wishing an equal plague on both the Conservative and Labour houses. Whatever the inadequacies and implausibility of Corbyn’s personal position, the arguments in favour of tactical voting, calibrated to the needs of individual constituencies, are still overwhelming for Remainers. In many, perhaps most constituencies, a rational tactical vote will be a vote for Labour. The objective consequences for Brexit of a Conservative government will be different to those flowing from a non-Conservative government. A Corbyn-led minority government would be far from ideal in the minds of many, probably most Remainers. But it would be a considerable improvement on the Johnsonian alternative.
A number of
websites have been set up providing detailed recommendations for tactical
voting in individual constituencies. These recommendations occasionally vary,
reflecting different polling data and divergent analyses of local
circumstances. This occasional variation
in no way undermines the general principle and efficacy of tactical voting on
12th December. The First Past the Post system sometimes makes it
difficult, or even impossible to vote tactically with any assurance of success
in every constituency. But it cannot be denied that if anti-Brexiteers vote
throughout the country for the party most likely to defeat the Conservative
Party in their seat, then nationally it will be much more difficult for Johnson
to win a majority in the House of Commons.
of course be many voters for whom Brexit is not a matter of sufficient concern
to change their traditional or contemporary voting preferences. Tactical voting
against Brexit will not be an option they will seriously consider. It is, however,
already clear from social media that there are a number of voters deeply
concerned about Brexit, but who are also deeply reluctant to vote for whatever
is the best placed party to defeat the local Conservative candidate. They may
not have forgiven the Liberal Democrats for their coalition with Cameron; they
may regard Corbyn as a dangerous extremist; they may be Unionists fearful of
voting for parties hostile to the Union. All of such reservations are
understandable, but against them should be set a number of countervailing
arguments on which voters need to reflect before casting their ballot.
recent General Elections, the underlying choice offered the electorate was that
between a Conservative and Labour governments. Even when, as in 2010 and 2017,
the eventual results of the election were indecisive, the preceding electoral
campaign had taken place on the premise that either Labour or the Conservatives
would gain a majority in the Commons and thus proceed to implement its manifesto.
The situation is very different in 2019.
While there is a realistic possibility of a Conservative majority to carry out manifesto
commitments, there is no corresponding chance of an overall majority for the
Labour Party. If there is a Labour Prime Minister after 12th
December, s/he will be the head of a minority government or a coalition. It is
far from inevitable that in such circumstances that Prime Minister would be Corbyn.
If he were, his room for political and economic manoeuvre would be extremely
limited to the extent that fears of a Marxist restructuring of the British
economy by Corbyn after 12th December seem on any hypothesis greatly
If a non-Conservative government can be constructed after the General Election, it will be fragile, fractious and circumscribed. It will in effect be the caretaker government for which Corbyn was calling earlier in the year, with little in the way of an agreed political agenda beyond holding a Brexit referendum. To reassure their supporters, Labour may be able under this caretaker government to introduce some redistributive measures of tax and spend; the SNP will press for a second independence referendum (which they could not be certain of winning); and the Liberal Democrats will look to burnish their credentials as a centre party waiting to benefit from what they hope will be the coming restructuring of British party politics. But radical change of any political, economic or social kind will be firmly off the agenda. In their local constituencies, tactical voters will opt for anti-Conservative parties whose domestic policies they may find uncongenial. At the national level, however, they will – critically – be voting for a pause for reflection in the Brexit process, a pause which the Conservative Party is refusing them.
long and painful birth, the European policy of a Labour-led government as it
stands is not entirely incoherent. It may well be possible for a Labour
government rapidly to renegotiate a Withdrawal Agreement and Political
Declaration not very different to Johnson’s but pointing towards a “softer”
Brexit in the medium term. After some initial grumbling, the EU would probably
be willing to accommodate a new government less hostile to itself and all its
works. There is equally a reasonable chance that a second EU referendum would
produce a majority against Brexit, with all the renewed economic and political
certainty that would imply. In those circumstances the caretaker government
emerging from the election on 12th December would have performed its
historic role and a new election would inevitably follow soon after. It would
be amazing if that new election did not reflect new party configurations born
of the agonising Brexit process and the fiercely contended second EU
referendum. Many voters next month might see this last possibility as another
considerable benefit of denying the Conservative Party the majority it craves.
Most of the
commentators and pollsters currently predicting a Conservative victory are
doing so because they see that Johnson can rely on the support of an enormous
proportion of the voters wishing to leave the EU asap. Those wishing to remain
are, however, split between Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the nationalist
parties and the Greens in England, Scotland and Wales. Voters in their
individual constituencies do, however, have the possibility of righting this
imbalance by being prepared to vote for candidates who would not normally be
their first choice, but who will contribute if elected to an anti-Conservative
majority to block Brexit. Labour voters think they have reasons to distrust the
Liberal Democrats; Liberal Democrats distrust Corbynite Labour; Unionists
distrust nationalist parties. But the worst conceivable outcome for all these
political groupings would be a Conservative government elected for five years
as a result of their internecine divisions. Few British voters genuinely vote
guided by the virtues or vices of their local candidates, but rather on the
sort of government they wish to see established. For Remainers, there are only
two realistic options for a future government after 12th December:
either a Conservative government to rip the UK out of the EU; or a caretaker
non-Conservative government that could prevent Brexit. It would be an unusual
Remainer who could honestly say that the dangers arising from the latter are anywhere
near as great as those arising from the former.
wishes to prevent Brexit and restructure British politics in the medium term should
cast his or her vote without considering the national implications of their
action. The perverse workings of the First Past the Post voting system can
often mean that voting for the elector’s most favoured party can simply help
their least favoured party win the seat in question. In most General Elections
that is for most voters simply a regrettable fact of life. In this one, it
would be for Remainers a wholly avoidable and self-inflicted tragedy.
At the weekend the former Home Secretary Amber Rudd gave an
interview that will usefully epitomise for future historians the moral and
intellectual confusion on European issues of the One Nation wing of the
Conservative Party she represents.
Editor’s note: As foreshadowed in this article, the House of Commons decided on 19th October to defer more detailed discussion of the Withdrawal Act until the following week. The votes of the DUP were crucial in securing this deferral.
Discussing the protracted negotiations to end the Vietnam
war, the American diplomat John Negroponte once said that it had taken a long
time to “force the North Vietnamese to accept the American surrender.” Things
have moved more quickly in the Brexit negotiations, where it has taken barely a
fortnight for Boris Johnson to surrender his supposed central objection to the
Withdrawal Agreement negotiated by Theresa May, that of a customs and
regulatory border in the Irish Sea.