Analysis: The UK’s black comedy of errors

By on 19/11/2018
Darkening skies: a weakened Parliament faces its biggest decision in decades (Image courtesy: Irena Jackson).

Conventional wisdom holds that the House of Commons must reject Theresa May’s Brexit deal. But current UK politics is defined by miscalculations and fear, not logic and principle; Matt Ross argues that the PM may succeed in securing both a political victory, and a huge defeat for British interests

Nearly two and a half years after the Brexit referendum – and with my apologies for the mixed metaphor – the UK government seems finally to have run out of road down which it can kick the can of worms. Within a month, PM Theresa May must test her Brexit proposals in the House of Commons. And the conventional political wisdom is that they cannot pass: that the parliamentary maths does not permit it.

After all, both Brexiteers and Remainers recognise that May’s deal is worse than the status quo. The UK would remain linked to the Customs Union, unable to make free trade deals with other nations, but with no say over the EU’s future development or regulations. Yet the deal does not fully protect Britain’s economy, particularly its services sector; and its citizens would lose key EU benefits such as the right to live and work abroad. Even the deal’s supporters don’t pretend that it’s better for the UK than EU membership: their core argument is simply that it delivers on the ‘will of the people’ – at least as defined by Theresa May – and that not doing so would be ‘undemocratic’ or might cause civil unrest.

So May’s proposals are hated by almost everyone – and with MPs from across the political spectrum believing they’d weaken and impoverish the UK, political pundits almost universally proclaim that they’ll be blocked in the Commons.

Conventional political wisdom has, however, not had a great couple of years. Indeed, the UK owes its current predicament to the fact that, at a series of key moments, the consensus amongst politicians and commentators has proved fundamentally wrong. Political events have been defined not by well-executed, well-evidenced plans, but by catastrophic and unpredictable miscalculations.

Four key mistakes

First, few thought David Cameron would secure a Tory majority in the 2015 election: he promised a referendum on EU membership to claw back votes from UKIP, probably in the belief that he’d have to trade the pledge away in talks with potential coalition partners. Then he won the election, and had to deliver the referendum.

Second, Cameron and his allies were confident of winning the referendum. Even Boris Johnson, star of the Brexit campaign, appears to have backed what he thought would be the losing side simply in order to boost his political career. Then Cameron lost, creating a popular mandate for a Brexit that he viewed as immensely damaging.

Third, having succeeded Cameron, Theresa May hastily enacted Article 50 and set out a series of ‘red lines’ which dramatically curtailed her room for manoeuvre in negotiations. Then she called a general election on the basis of polls which put the Tories streets ahead of Labour – and promptly lost her majority, making her task infinitely more difficult.

Fourth, the Brexiteers were adamant that the EU – controlled by national governments and business interests – would tear up its rulebook to offer Britain frictionless trade outside the Single Market. But as some warned, the EU prizes its key principles and its integrity above any one external relationship, whilst the process for leaving put the UK at a tactical disadvantage. So in the subsequent negotiation the EU’s position has barely moved, whilst every UK gain has been at the expense of one of May’s red lines.

A misleading picture

Looked at this way, the story of recent British politics comprises a series of disastrous miscalculations built on flawed readings of public opinion and the EU. And whilst political pundits are far better at understanding Parliament than the public, there are reasons to think that today’s conventional wisdom on the prospects for May’s deal may also prove misled.

Given the support of Northern Ireland’s 10 Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MPs, May has a Commons majority that just creeps into two figures. The vast majority of Labour MPs and almost every other opposition MP will attempt to vote down the deal, whilst the DUP have also pledged to oppose it. Over 20 European Reform Group (ERG) Tories – hardcore Brexiteers who fiercely oppose May’s proposals – claim they’ve submitted letters calling for May’s removal, and should be expected to vote against the deal; a handful of Remainer Tories are also likely to do so. On the face of it, she should lose the vote by 40-odd votes.

Yet voting the deal down would have consequences – and these may appear still worse to May’s Brexiteer opponents than her proposals.

Until recently, the conventional political wisdom – those dread words again – would have been that any PM losing such a key vote would have to resign. But if May did so, the UK would be leaderless as it slid towards a chaotic ‘no deal’ exit. The PM has a remarkable ability to put her head down and soldier on; her sense of duty might well lead her to stay in the job and try to find another way forward.

Smile for the cameras: Theresa May meets European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker a year ago

Thinking ahead

One path would be to permit a new referendum, in which May asks people to back her deal against Remain and, possibly, no deal. Given the Leave side’s narrow 2016 win, the lessons of two years’ negotiations, and the grumpy British public’s tendency to vote against the government’s position, there’s a strong chance that this would result in a Remain outcome.

May has consistently opposed the idea of another referendum; but she also consistently opposed the idea of a general election – until the moment she called one. And key EU figures have made clear that, whilst they wouldn’t extend Article 50 merely to allow further negotiations, they would probably do so to permit a referendum.

Alternatively, the PM could erase the last traces of her ‘red lines’ around freedom of movement, payments to the EU and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, and seek a much closer economic relationship with the EU – remaining a full member of the Single Market and Customs Union, whilst leaving the EU’s core institutions. Given the economic benefits, the EU might allow further time for these talks. And although the Labour leadership would much rather the current chaos results in a general election than a ‘soft’ Brexit, many Labour MPs might defy a party whip to back May’s rebuilt deal – compensating for lost Tory Brexiteer votes.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has little chance of securing that general election, for he’d need Tory and DUP votes. If the Tories went to the country to ask for the people’s verdict on nearly three years of political infighting and a widely-hated Brexit proposal, they would – despite Corbyn’s personal unpopularity – be very likely to lose. And the only thing uniting MPs across the Tory and Democratic Unionist parties is their shared horror at the prospect of a Corbyn-led government.

One other possibility is that of no deal. But whilst a few Brexiteers actively promote this outcome, the vast majority of MPs recognise that the resulting economic and social chaos would reap a bitter electoral harvest for those deemed responsible. The DUP – the epitome of ‘no surrender’ politics – may be willing to risk no deal in their determination to kill May’s plan, which threatens to create constitutional cracks between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. But if they overplay their hand, Labour and Tory moderates could unite to avert a chaotic no deal exit – either backing the deal, or amending it to require a referendum.

Why opposition is softer than it looks

Under constant pressure from the DUP and ERG, the PM blurred rather than abandoned her red lines during negotiations – leading to a deal that greatly weakens the UK’s economic ties to the EU, even whilst May attempts to protect manufacturing industry. Yet the ERG’s bark appears to be worse than its bite; though the group launched its long-touted leadership challenge last week, as yet it lacks the numbers to prompt a contest. The DUP is a steelier operation, and on Monday abstained on Budget votes: a potent reminder that they could bring down the government. But few believe that they’d take the risk of becoming Corbyn’s accidental kingmakers.

So what are the options facing the DUP and ERG? If they vote down the deal, the most likely outcomes are a new referendum or a softer Brexit, with smaller chances of no deal or a general election. And whilst Brexiteers constantly refer back to the popular mandate secured in the 2016 referendum, they adamantly oppose the idea of holding a referendum on the negotiated deal – for they suspect they would lose.

Faced with that calculation the DUP and ERG may, ultimately, feel they have to swallow May’s deal – probably having secured some face-saving tweaks on the Britain/Northern Ireland boundary and the non-binding statement on the future EU/UK trade deal.

This would be – as both sides know – the wrong outcome for the UK, which would end up weaker and poorer as a result. But such is British politics in 2018: most MPs will vote through a damaging deal because they’re too scared to tell voters how bad it is – and hence open themselves up to the charge that they’re defying the people’s will – whilst the diehard Remainers and Leavers may well hold back for fear of the alternatives.

Political expediency, national calamity

Of course, even if May did pledge a referendum – or accept amendments to her deal that required one – she would then face the challenge of getting the required legislation through Parliament. But that is looking too far ahead into the game of three-dimensional chess into which UK politics has sunk; on this point, the known unknowns obscure any sensible assessment.

Indeed, even setting out these thoughts presents a hostage to fortune. For the past few years have squashed any sense that we can reasonably predict what happens next; we can only consider some of the assessments being made by those involved. And as recent experience has shown, miscalculations and flawed assumptions are far more likely to define the UK’s future than intelligent calculations; hence no deal remains a very real possibility, no matter how much MPs and ministers would like to avoid it.

In 2016, the UK Parliament trusted the British people to decide whether the UK should leave the EU – bypassing representative democracy, and leaving Parliament as weakened as it is divided. Theresa May then negotiated a set of proposals that please nobody: they represent, in the opinion of both sides of the debate, a worse deal than the status quo. Yet in my view, given the Brexiteers’ greater fear of a referendum or Corbyn government, there is a fair chance of May’s deal receiving approval.

This would have the single benefit of getting the current government out of a hole, whilst delivering a Brexit that provides none of the economic benefits championed by Leavers. In a sane world, another referendum would instead be held – allowing the public to give their verdict on the options facing the UK at this moment, and creating an inarguable mandate for one course of action.

In this world, meanwhile, Brexiteers and May loyalists alike stalwartly oppose a new referendum, accusing those calling for one of not ‘trusting the people’. But the people haven’t gone away, and their views are surely as valid now as they’ve always been. The only way to cut through Britain’s political chaos is to show that, just as we trusted the people in 2016, we still trust them in 2018.

How we get to that point is unclear. But if we do so, the chances are that it will be the result of political miscalculations and erroneous conventional wisdom.

About Matt Ross

Matt is a journalist and editor specialising in public services, policymaking, government and management. He was the editor of trade title Civil Service World from 2008 to 2014, serving an audience of senior UK officials; and the features editor of weekly news magazine Regeneration & Renewal between 2002 and 2008, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development. He has also been a motoring and travel journalist, and now combines his role as editorial director of Global Government Forum with writing for other publications including The Guardian and Planning magazine.

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