A frequent contributor to The Guardian and The Telegraph, Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He was a special adviser in the British Conservative government from 2012-16.
Every day seems to bring another twist in the endless drama of Brexit.
After four and a half decades of membership, unwinding a relationship with the European Union was always going to be messy. But the lack of a stable majority in the House of Commons means that every twist has left political pundits and columnists scratching their heads, deleting their freshly typed copy and desperately writing “this is not normal.”
Observers overseas must be left wondering what happened to British pragmatism and common sense, and how an argument over membership of a trading bloc unleashed a national culture war.
British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal took another huge knock this week, losing by a margin of 149 votes. But the size of the defeat was less than the historic battering it suffered two months ago. And although clearly wounded, her Brexit deal is far from dead. In fact, the binding divorce deal will certainly be the basis of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union.
Across the country people of all political views are exasperated by the political imbroglio. Many people just want to find a way to move on. But there are some on the edges of the Brexit spectrum – both hardline leavers and passionate remainers – who have become radicalized in their positions. For them, their Brexit identity has become something close to a religious identity.
The paroxysms over Brexit in the British Parliament risk distracting us from the three broad choices facing the country. These are: leave with no deal with the EU, leave with a deal or don’t leave the EU.
The overwhelming likely scenario remains that the deal on the table will find a way through. After all, the Prime Minister’s deal has the advantage of being the only one that has been agreed by Brussels and approved by the heads of the 27 governments of the remaining EU member states.
On Wednesday evening, MPs voted again to rule out leaving the EU with no withdrawal agreement and on Thursday night, Parliament instructed the government to seek a delay to Brexit. Although these votes do not change the legal position, which is that the country will leave the EU on March 29, they are clearly morally binding on the government. No executive could ignore the clear will of Parliament without risking contempt proceedings.
To avoid a no-deal scenario, Parliament must either approve and ratify a deal, or the government must get an extension of the Article 50 Brexit negotiation period. A final but unlikely possibility is that Britain could withdraw the Article 50 exit mechanism, cancelling Brexit.
At this point, a delay to Brexit seems inevitable. The Prime Minister will seek that extension of Article 50 at a European Council meeting, where the heads of EU countries gather, in Brussels next Thursday. However, an extension needs to be approved unanimously by all EU member states and they could impose conditions.
There are two possibilities – either a short, technical extension allowing the Britain to complete the ratification of a withdrawal treaty, which most likely has already been approved by the Commons; or a long extension.
Any extension beyond the end of June would oblige Britain to hold elections for the European Parliament in May. There have been some suggestions and reports that the EU is considering offering the Britain a very long delay of 21 months, hoping that the political circumstances would change and a second referendum becomes more possible.
But a second referendum remains an unlikely outcome. Jeremy Corbyn, the Leader of Labour Party and the Official Opposition, is supposed to have moved to backing one. But he forgot to mention a so-called people’s vote in his statement to Parliament on Tuesday evening, after the defeat of Ms. May’s deal.
For the past few months, Labour has been conducting a slow tantric dance toward backing a referendum, but has never quite got there. On Thursday night, Labour didn’t even ask their MPs to support a vote on a new referendum, which Parliament defeated.
Over all, a second referendum is popular among some remain voters. But as polling expert Sir John Curtice has argued, the idea that there is a big popular support for this is misleading. The public are initially attracted to the idea in focus groups. In those groups, however, they rapidly argue themselves out of it – concerned that it could exacerbate rather than resolve divisions in the country, and could be seen as anti-democratic.
As the options for Brexit narrow, more and more MPs will be persuaded to back the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal, albeit with a heavy heart. She will have been pleased to secure the support of several influential Brexit backers on Tuesday. The most important convert was David Davis, her former Brexit secretary, who resigned last year over the direction of her Brexit policy. Others included Zac Goldsmith, whose father led a pro-Brexit political party in the 1990s, and who was the Conservative candidate for mayor of London in 2016.
However, her deal was still opposed by 75 of her own side. Of these, around half a dozen are concerned the deal is too “hard,” while the rest come from the Euroskeptic side of the party. Crucially, she needs to persuade Jacob Rees-Mogg, the chairman of the European Research Group, which is a caucus of several dozen MPs. He is very popular with the Conservative grassroots membership, and his support would help persuade other critics to back the deal however reluctantly.
Until this week’s vote, there were many backbench Conservative critics of the deal who preferred leaving the EU with no deal to accepting the Prime Minister’s deal. They argued the economic impact of no deal, as well as reports of possible shortages of foods and medicines, had been exaggerated. They also believed that keeping the possibility of no deal on the negotiating table would ensure that the EU conceded further.
This analysis ignores the first rule of politics as set out by former United States president Lyndon Johnson: you have to be able to count. With a strong majority in Parliament opposed to no deal, it was implausible to see how any government could manage what, even its proponents admit, would be a Herculean task.
How would crucial legislation be passed with no majority? As a result of recent defections to a new independent bloc of MPs, the government’s majority in the Commons is just wafer thin.
Several Conservative MPs have made clear they would withdraw their support from any government pursuing an active policy of no deal. If the government lost its majority, it’s possible to imagine a new cross-party majority being found for a so-called government of national unity. But a general election would probably be more likely.
It’s hard to see how a snap general election would serve the interests of Conservative Euroskeptic backbenchers. Many of these backbenchers opposed Ms. May’s leadership in a confidence vote back in December. A snap election would inevitably mean that Ms. May would lead the Tories into a new campaign, standing on a manifesto of delivering her deal – exactly what her critics would abhor.
A snap election also has risks for the Democratic Unionist Party. The Northern Irish party holds the balance of power in Westminster. Their 10 MPs provide a confidence and supply agreement that ensures Ms. May can, just about, govern.
Although they theoretically could withdraw their support from her and trigger an election, this threat has an element of mutual assured destruction about it. The DUP could bring down the government but would have no guarantee of holding the balance of power in a future Parliament.
In fact, despite all the Brexit dramas, most recent polls point to a strong lead for the Conservative Party, over Labour. This results from a combination of factors. One is Labour’s continuing inability to resolve its internal schisms over anti-Semitism.
Labour leadership’s failure to address the issue is adding to the impression that Mr. Corbyn would hardly be an effective national leader. And having a pregnant Jewish MP accuse the party of institutional anti-Semitism as she defected to join the Independent Group has badly damaged Labour’s brand.
Labour is also dealing with an impossible Brexit schism. The majority of party members, activists and MPs are passionately pro-EU. Most back a second referendum. Yet Labour cannot win a majority in a future election without flipping parliamentary seats that voted to leave.
Back a second referendum and the path to power in a general election evaporates. Rule out a referendum and further MPs could defect to the Independent Group, which promises a second referendum.
Apparently, the only viable policy is to promise all things to all people. And Labour’s Brexit position is carefully constructed to oppose the government’s plans, while never offering full clarity about their alternative. Over all, Labour oppose Ms. May’s Brexit deal not because of any of the legally binding parts of the divorce deal. Their political dividing lines are solely over the future relationship, the non-binding Political Declaration.
Labour seek a softer Brexit future relationship with the EU than the government is seeking. They argue for a customs union, which they suggest would protect manufacturing and industry, and keep the Irish border open.
Yet there already is a customs union at the heart of the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal. It’s called the backstop. And the only way the backstop can be exited is if both sides find solutions to maintain an open border and protect trade, resolving the need for the customs union in the first place.
In the bizarre Through the Looking-Glass world of Brexit politics, Labour won’t vote for the deal even though it has a customs union in it. And Ms. May can’t say there is a customs union in her deal because she might irritate her own backbench MPs. Meanwhile, the public are frustrated with the whole process.
Almost no one thinks the government has done a good job in the negotiations. Ms. May has failed to work across Parliament and take a cross-party approach. She also managed to exacerbate divisions in the country after the 2016 referendum, with her “Citizens of nowhere” speech and by refusing to guarantee the rights of EU nationals resident in Britain.
Yet for all her many obvious flaws, Ms. May has also won a grudging respect from some of the public. There is a scintilla of sexism in briefings from EU sources after European Council meetings where the Prime Minister was described as “tired” or “emotional.” Her voice failed while delivering her platform speech at Conservative Party Conference in 2017, and again this week in the Commons. And yet, she carried on.
In many respects, her strength is her weakness and her weakness is her strength. With no majority, the Prime Minister is at the mercy of any faction within her own party and has suffered humiliating defeat after humiliating defeat in Parliament. She has been reluctant to make decisions on Brexit policy, for fear of alienating one side or the other. This has compounded her natural tendency to dither and delay rather than decide.
Nonetheless, the Brexit deal on the table points to a direction where the Britain could have a future relationship with the EU, which just about keeps all her red lines she established two years ago intact. If the Prime Minister’s deal passes the Commons on a third, fourth or even fifth attempt, she will be the comeback queen. A historic defeat will have been overturned.
And yet, because politics is bitterly unfair, the price for achieving that victory may well need to be a change of leader. The next phase of the Brexit talks will begin once the divorce is complete and the vast majority of Conservative MPs are yearning for a new leader to take that stage forward.
What we have seen so far in the British Parliament is MPs spend months and months rerunning the same hackneyed arguments made during the 2016 referendum. Different groups have pursued their fantasy plans of a perfect Brexit or a perfect way of avoiding Brexit. It’s time for them to get real.
At times, all the various paths ahead have seemed impossible. Yet one of those paths has to happen. And the most likely course is a version of the Prime Minister’s deal ultimately passes the Commons. Despite all the political twists and turns, the drama and the defeats, I remain convinced that the Britain will leave the EU.
And when Britain does finally move on from the purgatory that Brexit has imposed – ending the perpetual Groundhog Day argument of should we or shouldn’t we leave – we can pass the event horizon of leaving the EU and move on to discussing what sort of country we want to be.