This blogpost was written on Monday, April 15th, 2019
Brexit has become a never-ending story for which there may actually be no end.
There is no majority in the House of Commons for the Withdrawal Agreement on offer. Nor is there a majority for leaving the EU with “no deal”. No one seems able to put together a winning coalition for any of the other exit strategies on offer: “Norway” (with or without +++); Canada, SuperCanada or Canada Dry; Malthouse. Alehouse or Curryhouse.
OK, I made the last two up but that’s about where we are. In restaurants BYOB normally means “bring your own bottle”. In the House of Commons read it as meaning “bring your own Brexit”.
Last week the European Union gave the UK a further Article 50 extension, to run until October 31st on condition that European Parliament elections are held on May 23rd next. As a continuing member of the EU the UK must hold the elections, otherwise the legitimacy of the Parliament, and any legislation it adopts, could be called into question.
Should the Commons decide to accept the Withdrawal Agreement anytime between now and October 31st it can leave on the first day of the following month. That is not likely to happen anytime soon. So, it seems inevitable that the UK will have to hold EP elections on May 23 next. These elections may turn out to be a game changer, one way or another, giving renewed life to either the Leave or Remain camps.
But before offering some comments on the EP elections it is worth taking a step back and reminding ourselves that today, Monday, April 15, we should already be some two weeks past “Independence Day”. The UK should by now be basking in the sunny uplands that Brexiteers promised. Trade agreements should have been dropping like ripe apples in autumn. From its island fortress Brexit Britain would be watching the “wretched” European Union imploding.
Instead, we see a UK Prime Minister of little real authority going to the European Council and asking if the UK could stay, just a little bit longer, as its politicians are unable to agree among themselves what they should do. Mrs May was asked to step outside while the 27 decided the UK’s fate. As Brigid Laffan has commented (here), sitting outside on your own is a cold and lonely place.
Brexit, or should I say the botched attempt at Brexit, has clearly demonstrated to the other 27 the value that comes from EU membership. There is now little talk of any other country leaving the EU, or leaving the euro. Yes, populists want to change the nature and the policy direction of the EU, not to abolish it. But that’s politics, groups and blocs fighting for their vision of the future, even if some of those visions are abhorrent and repellent.
Ironically, Brexit has helped give renewed impetus to the emergence of “European politics” as the Brexit debate has highlighted the “value added” that the EU brings. Here’s an interesting graph that shows just how many Europeans identify themselves as European as well as Irish, German, French Polish etc.
That “value added” does not just refer to the way the customs union and the single market works to make business across Europe easier. Look, for instance, at the anguish that grips the City of London as the realisation dawns that life outside the Single Market will be nasty and brutish. (here)
It also refers to the simple things of everyday life that we have written about before and that we now take for granted: the ease of travel, the absence of borders, health insurance coverage, the ending of roaming charges, pet passports, the ability to retire to the sun, the free flow of data that facilitates online shopping, and more.
The realisation that while Brexit may return a notional sovereignty to the UK it will do so at enormous expense is what is driving the pro-EU movement in the UK.
As Andrew Rawnsley writes in the Observer:
As I’ve remarked before, one of the unanticipated consequences of the past three years has been to create a highly motivated, articulate and energised pro-European base in British politics. You can now get a million people marching in London to proclaim their support for EU membership, a phenomenon never previously witnessed. It is even arguable that Britain now has the largest pro-EU movement in Europe. There’s an irony for you.
During the past week I was involved in running a management training program near Barcelona. One of my long-standing colleagues, an articulate, young English woman, told us that she was applying to be a Change UK candidate in the EP elections. Change UK is the new party that has been formed by breakaway MPs from both Labour and the Conservatives and it is unambiguously in favour of the UK remaining in the EU.
She hasn’t been involved in politics before as far as I know but feels so strongly that the UK’s future is in the EU that she has decided to step up to the plate. I have a feeling that she will not be the only one.
It seems to me that the upcoming EP elections could become a quasi-referendum on the UK and the European Union. But that all depends on how the campaign is approached and managed by the pro-Remain parties. As of the moment, according to Politico, early polling suggests that voters are heavily fragmented and no party is on course win more than a quarter of the votes.
Labour is the clear leader with 24% support, in YouGov’s poll of 1,843 people conducted April 10-11, the first poll on British voting intentions since an EU leaders summit agreed to extend the Brexit deadline. The Conservatives are in a second place with just 16% support, less than half the support they achieved at the 2017 U.K. general election.
Around half of the voters who say they would back the Conservatives in a national election will withhold their votes from the party in the European election, YouGov found.
Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party (with 15% support) and Farage’s former party — the UK Independence Party (UKIP) on 14% — are challenging the Conservatives for second place.
Other parties are scoring below 10% support including the new Change UK party (on 7%), and traditional minor parties the Liberal Democrats (8%), Greens (8%) and Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru (6%). It needs to be kept in mind that all of these “minor” parties are largely anti-Brexit. Together, they account for just under 30% of the vote. Whatever about the leadership of the Labour Party, the vast bulk of its membership is also anti-Brexit.
Pull all the numbers together and the anti-Brexit/pro-Brexit votes probably come in at around 55/45. But that is before the campaign gets under way and what actually happens at the ballot box will be dependent on the strategy and tactics of the various parties. For example, for both the major parties, the Conservatives and Labour, writing manifestos that all factions within those parties can support will be no easy task.
The Conservatives are deeply split and may well find it impossible to put forward a program around which they can cohere. There is talk that it might even sit out the election. Well, I suppose if you don’t take part in a race you can always claim that you didn’t lose.
For Labour the answer may be procedural: offer to negotiate a “pro-jobs” Brexit and then put the outcome to a second referendum, with “remain” as the other option. As Emily Thornberry, MP, Labour’s foreign policy spokesperson and a close ally of Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, puts it:
When the music stops, any deal that we end up with is likely to be highly controversial… therefore we need to go back to the public for them to have the #FinalSay.
But caution is advised. A good friend, who would very much prefer to see the UK stay in the EU, emails me to say:
It may be true that Britain now possesses one of the biggest pro-EU tendencies in any country; but they lack a leader, which is one reason why we got in this mess. They’re in a bad way if the 86-year old Michael Heseltine is their main star.
Indeed, the pro-remain parties have failed to make proper common cause so far, and I don’t see that changing. The Lib Dems, Change UK and SNP should have formed a common front (possibly with Plaid Cymru) …. and run a joint ‘remain’ candidate or candidates per constituency. You cannot rely on the kind of sophisticated tactical voting (“Make our party candidate your first choice, then X and then Y”). There’s no real experience of that in the UK, except in Scotland; turnouts in Wales are so low for EU and Assembly elections that you can’t count that as relevant experience.
What happens in Northern Ireland will also be fascinating. It returns 3 MEPs. It voted 56/44 to remain in the EU but its major political party, the DUP, has been strongly pro-Brexit. Given that elections to the European Parliament have no “constitutional” implications it will be interesting to see if the voters of Northern Ireland take the opportunity offered by having a European election there to send a strong “remain” message.
Given the political difficulties that these European elections will create for the Conservative Party, coming soon after what looks likely to be a drubbing for them in local elections to be held early in May, we expect that no stone will be left unturned to see if they can be avoided. Mrs May will try, try and try again to get the House of Commons to vote through the Withdrawal Agreement.
Back in August of 2018 we wrote a Brexit Briefing Brexit and the Politics of Hard Numbers here. It made the simple point that the first duty of any politician is to learn to count. You either have the votes to do something or you don’t. And if you don’t have the votes you have to go and find a way of getting those votes.
The normal way of getting extra votes is by adjusting policy, or tweaking proposals, of coming up with something that a majority in parliament can support. The problem for Mrs May is that the only possible majority available for any form of Brexit would require her to breach her reddest of red lines and open the door to continued customs union membership, and possibly single market membership as well. While such moves would be economically sensible, they would shred her commitment to ending freedom of movement, which has been the driving force of her entire approach to Brexit.
In the short term, over the next week or so, the government will try to hammer out a deal with Labour which could secure a majority in parliament. But it still looks like that it is trying to put together a “cake and eat it” agreement that will go nowhere with the EU. As David Lidington, effectively the UK’s Deputy Prime Minister, told Andrew Marr on his Sunday TV politics show:
“We are absolutely clear the objective is no tariffs, no quotas, no rules of origin checks. We still believe it is possible to have, in addition to those benefits of a traditional customs union, a freedom to do that independent trade deal with the rest of the world. “If we are going to find an agreement there needs to be movement on both sides”, he said. “The question is what type of customs arrangement, what type of customs agreement can you then construct that gives us the benefits that we both want to see.”
The “both want to see” refers to the government and Labour, not to the UK and the EU. In other words, the belief remains that if the UK can only just agree with itself then agreement with the EU will follow.
Brexit is indeed a never-ending story.