Article 50, Brexit, British Government, Irish border, Northern Ireland

#Brexit and the Politics of Hard Numbers

This blog was written on Aug 26, 2018.

Commons voteIn the end, democratic politics comes down to the brutality of numbers… of hard numbers. Either you have the votes to get measures through parliament or you don’t.

Politics is about being able to count. Ask the Australian politician Peter Dutton about hard numbers. Last Monday he believed he had the votes to oust the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, and take the top job himself. He had the votes, as they say in Australia to ‘spill’ Turnbull but lost to Scott Morrison when it came to the decision as to who would replace Turnbull. Dutton counted the wrong numbers.

For a great part of the past 100 years parliamentary majorities and party discipline generally gave UK governments the numbers they needed in the House of Commons.

But not when it comes to Brexit.

Theresa May’s hubristic decision to call a general election in 2017 deprived her of the small majority she had and made her dependent on the votes of the Northern Ireland DUP to stay in office. Her own actions deprived her of any room for manoeuvre she could have had. Who knows how matters might have played out had she never called that election.

But, as politicians are fond of saying, we are where we are and where we are is that there is probably no majority in the House of Commons for any Brexit deal.

However, it is critical to remember one thing. In any negotiation when you fail to strike a deal the status quo normally prevails. When it comes to Brexit, in the absence of a deal, the “status quo” is not continued membership of the European Union.

It is leaving the European Union on March 29th 2019 with no deal for that is what the UK has enshrined in law. It would take a vote by a majority in the House of Commons to reverse that decision. I don’t see that happening.

Now, in the immortal words of the late Denis Healey: “Never extrapolate. It makes you go blind”, but sometimes it is hard to resist the temptation.

As I see it, the arithmetic is as follows. There are about 60 ultra-Brexiters within the Tory ranks who are utterly opposed to the Prime Minister’s so-called “Chequers deal”, which is, in any event, just an internal Tory party deal and certainly not a deal with the EU. They want a “clean Brexit”, which means leaving the EU with a Canada-style free trade agreement or else leaving and allowing trade between the EU and the UK to be conducted on minimalist World Trade Organisation (WTO) terms.

For example, see the “chuck Chequers” letter from Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the Ultras, to Conservative constituency parties here.

The Moggist approach completely misunderstands WTO terms and what can be achieved through them. But no matter how many trade specialists point out the shortcomings they are ignored and brushed away. If you deeply believe that there is a heaven, no amount of rational argument will convince you otherwise.

It also ignores the complex web of institutions, agencies and rules that govern the deep integration within the European market, covering everything from aviation, to medicines, to driving licences, to financial regulations, to atomic materials, to something as simple as pet passports.

The Moggists appear to believe that in the event of their desired no-deal Brexit the EU will simply leave all these things in place for the UK as to do otherwise “would not be in the EU’s interest”. In effect, a unilateral declaration of Brexit terms by the UK, daring the EU to “do something about it”.

Take away the 60 Moggist votes and the Prime Minister does not have enough Conservative/DUP votes to get any Brexit deal she does with the EU through the House of Commons. It is unlikely that the 50 plus SNP MPs are going to come to her assistance, unless she were to offer them an independent Scotland in the EU. She probably won’t.

So, could she secure enough Labour votes to get whatever Withdrawal Agreement (WA) she reaches with the EU through? I don’t think so but before discussing this it is necessary to ask the question as to what sort of WA May can hope to negotiate.

First, it might be useful to remind readers who have normal everyday lives and are not Brexit obsessives of the actual process through which the UK will leave the EU. The process comes in two stages. To start, there is a two-year period, which began on March 29th, 2017, when the UK formally notified the EU of its intention to leave, during which the EU and the UK negotiate a WA, which also covers the “framework” of future relationships between the UK and the EU, but not the details of that relationship.

At the end of the two years the UK leaves the EU and becomes a “third country” at which point the EU is free to negotiate the details and substance of a future trade/economic deal with the UK. The EU cannot negotiate a trade deal with the UK as long as it remains a member of the EU.

The EU identified three major matters that had to be covered in the WA, along with a host of second order issues. They were:

  • the rights of EU citizens living in the UK at the date of Brexit and UK citizens living in the EU;
  • the financial obligations that the UK had outstanding to the EU; and
  • the avoidance of the return of a land border in Ireland.

The EU also made it clear that it would not move to discussing the “framework” of the future relationship between the EU and the UK, post-Brexit, until sufficient progress had been made on these three issues.

For its part, the UK had wanted a twin-track negotiation, with discussion on the WA running in parallel with detailed talks on the future deal. David Davis, then the UK’s Brexit Secretary, loudly proclaimed that it would the “row of the summer of 2017” if the EU failed to agree to this twin-track process.

It turned out to be the row that never was when the UK folded on its twin-track demand within hours of the negotiations opening. A sign of things to come. The UK talked loudly but only carried a little stick.

To complicate matters, the UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, committed to several “red lines” which ruled the UK out of future participation in the single market and the customs union, end the free movement of citizens from the EU to the UK and take the UK out of the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU).

Progress was quickly made on the mutual rights of citizens and the UK also agreed that it owed the EU about £40Bn, to be paid over the coming years as obligations fell due. However, for domestic political purposes, UK ministers continued to insist that it also “bought” the future trade agreement., a “spin” which now complicates matters.

The real sticking point came to be the issue of the avoidance of a border in Ireland, with the Prime Minister’s reliance on the votes of the DUP to stay in office limiting her room for manoeuvre, as we have already noted.

By late 2017 it was becoming clear to all that the UK had made a major strategic error in triggering the Article 50 withdraw process before it had given any real thought to what leaving the EU would mean in practice.

As we have previously written, it was somewhat akin to selling your house, including fixture and fittings, and agreeing a quit date without having decided where it was you wanted to move to, never mind having bought a new house. There are now voices in the UK claiming that if the UK finds itself “homeless” after next March it is all the fault of the EU.

It was evident that the UK would need a transition period between formally quitting the EU in March 2019 and actually leaving in practice. But it could only get such an arrangement if the three WA deal breakers were put to bed and Ireland was proving the difficulty one.

Late December last, May agreed a “backstop” for Ireland which, in essence, would see Northern Ireland’s continued alignment with the EU single market regulations and customs union in the absence of any other arrangement agreed between the EU and the UK, thereby avoiding the need for any border infrastructure. The backstop got the “sufficient progress” positive report from the EU’s negotiator, Michael Barnier, to the European Council that the UK need to move talks to the transition and the future “framework”.

But within days of the December agreement, the UK had a dose of “negotiators’ remorse” and began claiming that the Irish backstop did not mean what it clearly meant. The issue still remains to be closed. As so often in English history, the “Irish Question” haunts UK politics.

May also came under pressure over the financial settlement. Surely, critics asked, the UK was not going to pay the EU £40Bn without getting a trade deal?

Both the “Irish Question” and the financial settlement pushed May into crafting her “Chequers deal” (for details see But the EU has made clear that this “deal” is going nowhere as it is seen as nothing more than cherry-picking, wanting certain EU benefits without EU obligations.

The best that the UK government can now hope for is a WA (withdrawal agreement) that covers off the three major issues identified by the EU, along with a political declaration setting out the “framework” of the future relationship, rather than a detailed trade deal. The “framework” can, of course, leave Chequers on the table to be considered during the negotiations that will take place during the transition. Chequers can be put on life support.

But first there has to be a WA and to achieve that there has to be agreement on Ireland, which is proving enormously difficult, close to impossible.

It seems to me that it could be extremely helpful in finding a solution to the “Irish Question” if the Northern Ireland devolved government and Assembly were once again working. It needs to be kept in mind that Northern Ireland voted 56/44 to stay in the EU and all studies since have shown that the NI economy would be hit extremely hard by exiting the single market and the customs union.

Better that the people of NI, through their representatives in the Assembly, have a voice on their future than allowing the ultra-Brexiters in the DUP make all the running.  Getting the devolved government and the Assembly back on the road would bring new players into the game and that could make a difference.

There is no bigger issue facing NI than Brexit. It should dwarf all other consideration and issues, all of which can easily be picked up again in the future. Brexit is a one-time decision. An economically poorer NI will make resolving all political questions that much more difficult.

Here’s a suggestion: even in the absence of a devolved government why not convene an exceptional meeting of the Assembly to discuss Brexit? What’s to lose?

Which brings us again to the votes in the House of Commons. It is unlikely that anything May brings back from Brussels will satisfy the Moggite ultras. But given the likely sketchiness of the future “framework” it will probably not satisfy Labour either. Actually, nothing would as Corby, the Labour leader, sees May’s difficulties as his opportunity. What he wants above all is another general election which he believes will make him Prime Minister, and he is not going to do anything to prop up the government.

Which means it could come down to how many Labour MPs would be willing to break ranks to support the government and ensure that there is no “no-deal Brexit” on March 29th, 2019. Given the control the Corbynites have over the Labour Party machine any decision by any MP to break ranks could well be career ending.

We too easily forget that nowadays politics is all that most MPs have, unlike former times when many also had a career outside of politics. Being a professional, full-time politician undermines independence of mind and spirit if you have nothing else to fall back on. I do not see many Labour MPs coming to rescue May from her own ultras. Hard numbers.

What about calls for another referendum which, opinion polls suggest, may have growing support in the country?

Firstly, another referendum would require that the House of Commons vote to hold one and it does not seem to me right now, that the votes are there to do so. The Prime Minister has firmly ruled one out. The ultra-Brexiters don’t want one and the Labour leadership would prefer a general election. Again, hard numbers. Oh, and remember; opinion polls don’t have a vote in the Commons.

Secondly, what question(s) would a second referendum put to the people? Whatever deal the Prime Minister negotiates with Brussels or no deal? The Prime Minister’s deal or remain in the EU? Referendums work best when they present binary choices on a single issue.

The problem is, as all that has happened since the last referendum shows, the UK’s relationship with the EU is not a single issue but a mesh of complex relationships developed over forty years.

It has been argued that now that the people realise all that is involved in Brexit and leaving the EU they will have changed their minds and accept that staying is the lesser of two evils. I doubt it.

According to Nick Bostrom, the Oxford-based philosopher:

“democracies… find it difficult to act decisively before there has been any visible demonstration of what is at stake.”

Sums up Brexit. It is only after Brexit that the damage becomes apparent. By then, too late.

As of today, my own view is that as things stand we are heading for a no-deal Brexit because of the poisonous nature of House of Commons politics and the brutality of hard numbers. What happens afterwards is anyone’s guess.

Since we started writing these BEERG Brexit Briefings we have concluded each with the advice to business to “hope for the best but prepare for the worst”.

From here on we are striking the “hope for the best” part.

The brutality of hard numbers.

8 thoughts on “#Brexit and the Politics of Hard Numbers

  1. Yep – exactly my take – no majority in the commons for ANY version of Brexit – default crash out 29 March and nothing to stop it. Also agree on “people’s vote” – what on earth would they vote on? Any vote has to offer politically actionable choices (one reason why the referendum was so flawed – the Leave option wasn’t full defined or actionable in any coherent sense). Before 29 March, government could only offer Accept Withdrawal agreement or Annul Article 50 (crashing out is not politically actionable – even though it is politically possible). After 29 March, we won’t be in a position to vote on a deal on our future relationship until it is agreed – sometime post 2020(?).

    What a mess.


  2. As time goes by I suspect there will be a majority for customs union and possibly an EEA or even Single Market membership. The bulk of Tories would go for this and Labour. The difficulty us this would require May to talk to Labour


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