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.
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.
At the time of writing it seems unlikely that the Withdrawal Agreement will be accepted by Parliament on 29th March, the day originally set for the UK to leave the EU. Parliament has decided that in these circumstances it will hold a further round of voting on 1st April, in the hope of arriving at a consensus on Brexit after the indecisive votes of 27th March. It is entirely possible that on 1st April a majority of the House of Commons will vote for permanent British membership of a Customs Union with the EU or for a further referendum. This will bring great political satisfaction to those MPs who since the beginning of the year have been arguing that Parliament should “take control” of the Brexit process.
UPDATE 25/03/19: Last week the European Council gave the United Kingdom two further weeks to come up with a plan for avoiding a “no deal” Brexit. It is now up to Parliament to adopt such a plan and make the government adopt it too. If this government remains set on “no deal,” Parliament needs to replace it.
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→
In the documents released this week by the British government and the EU there is a striking contrast between the detailed and specific nature of the proposed Withdrawal Agreement (WA) and the cursory, imprecise nature of the accompanying Political Declaration (PD.) The WA is a binding legal document, creating bankable rights and obligations. The Political Declaration is a purely aspirational text, pointing towards a range of long-term outcomes for the next stage of the Brexit negotiations, and expressing the pious hope that these outcomes will be as benevolent as possible for all concerned.