It is frequently claimed that the central flaw of the 2016 European referendum was its failure to clarify the nature of the Brexit for which Leave voters were voting. There is some truth in this analysis, but it does not precisely capture the inadequacy of the result as a basis for subsequent action. Many, probably most, Leave voters had a clear idea of what they thought they were voting for: maintenance of the economic benefits of EU membership, coupled with the disappearance of the legal and political obligations arising from that membership. The Leave campaign spent much time and effort presenting this seductive and dishonest prospectus to the electorate. Indeed, they would not have gained their narrow victory if they had spoken frankly of the unwelcome trade-offs that would inevitably accompany Brexit.
criticism of the Prime Minister is that she prematurely triggered the Article
50 negotiations in March 2017 and did so without a realistic plan for their conduct.
If she had waited longer and planned better, her critics contend, she could
have negotiated a more acceptable Withdrawal Agreement and Political
Declaration than the texts she is now having such difficulty steering through
Parliament. It is certainly true that
Theresa May began the Brexit negotiations with no realistic plan. But no amount
of delay and no amount of planning would have allowed her ever to achieve
results acceptable to a majority of “Leave” voters and their Parliamentary
sympathisers, let alone to the electorate or to Parliament as a whole. “No
deal” was from the beginning the most likely outcome. The contradictory and
unrealisable expectations reposed in “Brexit” could never lead to an outcome
with which its partisans would be satisfied.
Four conclusions emerge from the series of votes on Brexit in
the House of Commons this week (29th January):
• First, this government is so paralysed by internal
division that it is incapable of pursuing any coherent policy in the negotiations.
As long as it is in office but not in power, the UK is therefore on track to
leave the EU on 29th March 2019 with “no deal.”
• Second, there is a majority of MPs, probably a significant
majority, who wish to avoid the UK’s leaving the European Union without a
• Third, this majority is not yet willing or able to impose
its will on a government that runs the risk of bringing this about.
• Fourth, tensions and divisions within the major parties
will make it difficult, although far from impossible, for Parliament to impose
its will on the government before the end-March deadline. The possibility of
the UK’s leaving the EU in two months with “no deal” having been agreed remains
as high as ever. Whether this anarchic event occurs will depend on the
interaction between the above distinct and contradictory conclusions emerging
from this week’s vote.
It is significant and appropriate that the Conservative MPs who voted on 15th January against the Prime Minister’s Withdrawal Agreement from the European Union should have been drawn from opposing wings of her Party. While the majority of her internal opponents came from the European Research Group, some came from a very different part of the political spectrum, like Dominic Grieve and Justine Greening, who favour a new referendum with the option to remain in the EU. The 2016 referendum was largely a product of divisions within the Conservative Party and the conduct of the Brexit negotiations has been dominated by the internal manoeuvrings within the Party. The Prime Minister’s attempts to please everyone within her fractious Party during the Brexit negotiations have ended up pleasing very few Conservative MPs outside the ranks of her government, members of which are bound to support her in a public vote.
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.
In the confused discussion surrounding the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration negotiated by Mrs. May with the EU 27, two particular criticisms are frequently voiced. Mrs. May, we are told on all sides, has failed to respect the result of the EU referendum of June 2016; and her failure is at least partly due to having triggered prematurely the Article 50 notification without a strategy for the negotiations. Both criticisms are unjust. The Agreement and Declaration are the logical and predictable outcome of the deluded vote for Brexit cast by 37% of the electorate in 2016; and there was no better plan available to her in 2017 or later for implementing Brexit than the path she chose. Continue reading Blame Brexit, not Theresa May→
Over the past two years, the Conservative Party has been riven by the conflict between those who wanted the United Kingdom after Brexit to remain closely aligned with the European Union as a trading partner; and those who did not, or at least attached little or no importance to doing so. The Prime Minister’s desire to find a negotiating strategy reconciling these two widely different approaches led to the enduring stalemate and incoherence which the “Chequers” plan was designed to overcome. Unsurprisingly, this plan pleased neither side of the Conservative debate and attracted a final, unexpectedly categorical rejection from the EU at the Salzburg summit.Continue reading Brexit: Salzburg makes a People’s Vote more likely→
The Minister for Exiting the European Union, Dominic Raab, last week published a number of “notifications” on the possibility of the UK’s leaving the European Union without a Withdrawal Agreement (“no deal Brexit”). On the same day, wide publicity was given to a letter from Jacob Rees-Mogg MP, chairman of the European Research Group (ERG), in which he criticised the Prime Minister’s handling of the Brexit negotiations. Aspects of both episodes vividly illustrate the dysfunctionality of today’s Conservative Party. Taken together, they throw considerable doubt upon the capacity of the present Conservative government to conclude any Withdrawal Agreement with the EU before March 2019. Continue reading BREXIT:THE CONSERVATIVE CENTRE CANNOT HOLD→
The Conservative Cabinet has spent the past month in public controversy about the customs regime to be applied on the island of Ireland after Brexit. It is widely recognised that neither of the two favoured solutions canvassed within the Cabinet, a “customs partnership” and “maximum facilitation”, is acceptable to the European Union. Less widely understood has been the fact that this purely British debate ignores entirely the much more urgent Irish issue, namely the finding of an acceptable text for the “backstop” guarantee sought by the Irish government that intra-Irish trade (and broader social exchanges) will in all circumstances continue to flow freely after Brexit. Even full British participation in a Customs Union with the EU would not be sufficient to guarantee this freedom. The Irish government rightly points out that substantial elements of the European internal market would need to be retained in Northern Ireland as well, a reality for which the British government appears as yet wholly unprepared. Continue reading Brexit: A “meaningful” vote for MPs implies a “meaningful” vote for the people→