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:
- The government has moved towards a softer Brexit,
- Hardcore Brexiteers have pushed back with some success,
- A second referendum seems more likely though not the most likely scenario,
- 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.