Brexit Breakdown and Confusion

I posted earlier this month on Brexit Breakdown suggesting that the aims of enthusiasts for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, leaving the European Union, have been eroded as the UK government’s positions drifts towards ‘soft Brexit’ accepting alignment with EU regulations on industrial goods and food, at the very least. This is still the case, but the situation has become increasingly complex, driven in an unpredictable way by contradictory forces, as I will attempt to explain below.

Full ‘soft Brexit’ would mean membership of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), with almost complete adherence to European regulation. ‘Hard Brexit’ means eliminating any adherence to EU regulations, which in its most rock hard form means a willingness, even a preference, for crashing out of the EU with no agreement, resorting to World Trade Organisation rules to govern trade. On the other side are ‘Remainers’, including myself, who ideally would like to stay in the European Union after a referendum reversing the decision of two years ago; and who if this is not possible will work for the return of the UK to the EU at a future date.

It is still the case that over time the government has drifted towards soft Brexit, though not EFTA, and seems likely to end up agreeing to an even softer Brexit after EU negotiations are complete. The most notable area of likely compromise with the EU is to preserve an almost completely open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland by allowing de facto membership of the EU Customs Union of Northern Ireland through a de facto border in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, largely in the form of EU customs inspections on ships between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

The House of Commons anyway came very close recently to voting for the UK as a whole to form a customs union between the UK and the EU, so a proposal backed by the government for a form of customs union between the UK and the EU allowing an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic without a customs border in the Irish Sea would certainly pass the House of Commons. It is one of the oddities of Brexit that a free vote of the House of Commons would result in the UK joining EFTA and this is resisted by the leadership of the two largest parties.

The Labour Party leadership resists EFTA (or any other way in which the UK stays in the Customs Union or the Single Market) though most Labour Party Members of Parliament, party members, and voters support remaining in the EU. The Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn supported Remain in the referendum though he has always looked like a socialist critic of the EU as a capitalist club. The Conservative Party leadership resists EFTA, though most Conservative MPs supported Remain in the referendum and would vote for EFTA now, and the leader (who is also Prime Minister), Theresa May, supported Remain during the referendum. In the case of the Conservatives though, party members and voters are mostly Leave and hard Brexit.

Theresa May gathered her Cabinet at the Prime Minister’s country residence, Chequers, recently to force through a soft Brexit package, in the hope of ending increasingly public conflict on the issue. Two members of the Cabinet have since resigned and Brexiteers in the House of Commons have forced some concessions, though of a rather secondary kind, which might disappear in further negotiations with the EU and the final parliamentary vote on the exit deal.

The consequences of recent political manoeuvres are as follows:

  1. The government has moved towards a softer Brexit,
  2. Hardcore Brexiteers have pushed back with some success,
  3. A second referendum seems more likely though not the most likely scenario,
  4. A no deal hard Brexit seems more likely though not the most likely scenario.

These four things do not seem to go together and what has happened is a drift from what seemed like the overwhelming probability of a hard Brexit with an agreement, to a relatively chaotic situation in which it is becoming harder and harder to decide on the most likely of the possible outcomes.

Hard Brexit without a deal has come to seem more likely because hard Brexiteers in the Conservative Party may undermine any agreement the Prime Minister (who has recently started to exercise direct control over negotiations) may reach with the EU and there are signs that the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) will take voters from the Conservatives in the case of a soft Brexit. Theresa May is trying to achieve a position which can get most MPs behind her, and most Conservative MPs will probably support any deal she proposes. However, the hard Brexit people are willing to do anything to undermine a deal they consider inadequate and may vote with Labour in voting down a deal, though for very different reasons.

May’s hold on the Conservative Party is weak after her very poor performance in last year’s general election and no one expects her to be the leader at the next election (though given that the impossible seems to be becoming possible maybe we should not accept this as a given). Any election for the leader requires a contest in the parliamentary party to determine two candidates, with the Conservative Party membership as a whole deciding between them. The membership will undoubtedly vote for the more hard Brexit candidate, which at the moment seems likely to be Boris Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg. Rees-Mogg has absolutely no governmental experience at all, which would create an unprecedented situation if he does become Conservative leader and Prime Minister.

Neither Rees-Mogg nor Johnson is popular with the parliamentary party, so there must be a real possibility that neither makes it the final list of two candidates, presuming the parliamentary party does not persuade the candidates behind the leader of the first round to abandon the contest, which is what happened in May’s case. This could set off a major crisis in the Conservative Party.

The possibility of a second referendum (labelled a People’s Vote by its main advocates) is increasing because it seems likely that hard Conservative Brexiteers allied with the Labour Party will vote down any soft Brexit, and it also seems likely (but less likely as hard Brexiteers are more willing to vote against their own government) that an alliance of soft Conservative Brexiteers and the Labour Party will vote down any hard Brexit. It also seems very possible that the EU will reject any UK offer, as the arguments within Parliament and the Cabinet on the terms of Brexit refer to what can be agreed within British politics, not what the EU might find acceptable. At the very least it seems increasingly likely that substantive Brexit will be postponed, apart from withdrawal of UK representatives from EU institutions, for at least a couple of years after next year’s formal withdrawal.

The various forms of deadlock described above have not yet made a second referendum likely, but are increasing the likelihood of a second resort to the People to find a solution, though the question that would be asked, the form of any such referendum, its timing and so on remain unclear. Opinion polls show increasing support for a second vote and for then remaining in the EU, while the media is giving more coverage to the possibility. I would be happy to see such a result myself. The increasing uncertainty about what Brexit means itself undermined Leave claims that it would be an easy exit. Nevertheless, I have to say that the UK is probably leaving and that a no-deal Brexit is also increasing in probability.

7 thoughts on “Brexit Breakdown and Confusion

  1. I think you’ve lost the thread on the Brexit side. There is a wholesale revolt in the grassroots Conservative party, even Theresa May herself has been warned by her Constituency, a Remainer one. One can imagine what is being said in Brexit ones. Then there is UKIP. If you get your second referendum you will get one of two things, a third – ad infinitum, or a civil war.

    • On a second referendum, your claim there will be a civil war is nonsense, the UK/Great Britain/The Three Kingdoms have not had a Civil War (leaving aside Ireland) since the 17th century despite splits and crises at least as great as Brexit. There will not be a civil war about this. This bizarre prediction shows how much clarity and objectivity you bring to this issue. Yes if there is a second referendum with a remain result then Brexiteers will argue for an other referendum, whether they will get one is another matter and your predictions of referenda ad infinitum is about as well balanced and well based as your civil war claim. A second referendum will only be held (and if you read my post carefully, you will see that I say it is still unlikely) if Brexit is a manifest disaster. In such a situation the Leave camp will find it a lot less easy than you are assuming, to insist on a third referendum. Your lurid predictions are in essence a thin disguise for the pseudo-democratic and even anti-democratic argument that once the People is consulted on its Will, the People cannot be consulted again.

      • In your opinion. Civil War likely? But Remain will lose worse than they did the first time, so it’s irrelevant. Go talk to the Tory grassroots, especially in the Midlands, it won’t sound like you hear in Oxbridge.

  2. I think you’ve lost the thread of my post, I realise it is rather long but do try reading it again with due care and attention, in which case you will notice phrases like

    “In the case of the Conservatives though, party members and voters are mostly Leave and hard Brexit.”

    ” The membership will undoubtedly vote for the more hard Brexit candidate, which at the moment seems likely to be Boris Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg”

    “Neither Rees-Mogg nor Johnson is popular with the parliamentary party, so there must be a real possibility that neither makes it the final list of two candidates, presuming the parliamentary party does not persuade the candidates behind the leader of the first round to abandon the contest, which is what happened in May’s case. This could set off a major crisis in the Conservative Party.”

    If you stop and think about these phrases then you will see I refer to strong Conservative grassroots opposition to soft Brexit/the Chequers plan. I don’t refer to ‘wholesale revolt’ because this is a melodramatic reference to something that might happen later, this is high summer, the dog days of the political calendar, while this means that MPs are spending more time with their constituency parties and undoubtedly getting negative feedback in many cases, it is far too soon to talk about revolt, when for one thing many people are on holiday. The party conference season will be time to see whether there is genuine revolt from the Conservative grassroots. The last sentence of the last passage in quotation marks above makes it clear I am well aware of the possibility of a grassroots Conservative revolt on Brexit, I am not however going to refer to something which might happen as if it has already happened. Complaints are not revolt.

    I have made an attempt to honestly assess all sides of this debate with some, but very minimal, reference to my own point of view, including discussion of resistance to hard Brexit from parts of the Conservative Party, and a possible shift to UKIP . Your comment is not at all in such a spirit

  3. Reblogged this on Stockerblog and commented:
    Me on the Brexit process at the group blog Notes On Liberty. As a special treat, if you look at the comments you will see my bad-tempered response to what struck me as a particularly irritating commentator!

  4. Neo, I don’t have any Oxbridge connections. I am a British (south London) academic based in Istanbul. My degrees are from Warwick (the Midlands) and Sussex. As an academic person, inevitably I have some Oxbridge links, but it is certainly not the centre of my world. The fact that you resort to insinuations about my social context in order to undermine my arguments is not an indication of argumentative integrity. I will refrain form speculation and insinuation about your social context. It’s not clear to me what it is I would learn in the Midlands I wouldn’t learn at Oxbridge (and by the way the University of Oxford is in an industrial town, particularly round Cowley, adjacent to the Midlands). I suppose your point is that people you know in the Midlands Conservative Associations are really really angry about May’s soft Brexit drift. Nothing I say contradicts or denies this and I do indicate the strength of hardcore Brexit feelings amongst Conservative members, so I don’t see that you are adding in substance to what I have said. Are Midlands Conservative Associations en masse demanding their MPs vote for hard Brexit or face deselection, are they demanding that MPs sign letters to bring about a leadership contest or face deselection? Have association resolutions been passed along these lines? At this point we might reasonably talk about revolt. You have not provided any information to support this, and unless you do I will continue to presume that there are complaints but no revolt. As I’ve already said in this thread, conference season is likely to be time for revolt (including the run up when resolutions are submitted, maybe emergency resolutions are the relevant kind here), while the summer is the time for complaints and pondering action.

  5. You appear to be asking me if I think civil war is likely. Maybe I am mistaken, but in case I am not: No I don’t think civil war is likely and I think I made that pretty clear in my comments. If you think Remain will lose by a bigger margin a second referendum, it is heard to understand why you are against it. Surely you should be demanding a second vote to humiliate the remain cause and push it to the margins?

Please keep it civil

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