Brexit is again on the cusp. Boris Johnson’s lowest common denominator Withdrawal Agreement (WA2) is before the Parliament either for a ‘meaningful vote’ or for a Second Reading as a Bill. Whether passed as a meaningful vote, it cannot of itself secure Brexit as that is conditional on the passage of separate and complex enabling legislation which may be subject to amendment and may take a long time to enact. If however Boris chooses to crash out regardless and take his chances with regard to Parliament and the law, Britain will be in a turbulent state as never before.
Brexit has torn a hole in the British polity that will carry scratch marks for decades. The problem has always been that there are two strongly held and irreconcilable views on what ‘going forward’ means. One is quasi-tribal; the other is prepared to work with others, including the EU, for the larger good.
What exists now is a government ‘in power’ that has not won a vote in the House of Commons since it took on its new clothes under Boris Johnson. It is being squeezed between the more extremes of these views and is not looking credible in the eyes of the EU and much of its own electorate.
How might the country be extricated from its torture?
One stream would have a General Election now, though under the fixed-term Parliamentary Act that requires a two-thirds majority vote in the Commons, and this can only be achieved by cross-party agreement – or a no-confidence vote with Tory support! But a General Election would likely solve only who would be in charge for the next round with the EU; it would not solve the Brexit issue because of the divergent views across the major parties.
The other approach, held by the thousands protesting in the streets outside Parliament and many in the Parliament, seeks a People’s Choice – or second referendum, keeping alive the option of staying in the EU after all. Many also believe that both Withdrawal Agreements, 1 and 2, contain flaws that cannot be corrected until a clear view of the electorate is established. Objections that this flouts the democratically decided Leave vote in 2016 are dismissed because (i) the issue now is very different from what it was then as the severe consequences of withdrawal are better understood; and (ii) the outcome in 2016 was brought by a spurious majority as it represented only 34% of eligible voters. Moreover, they might add, millions more would have since become eligible voters on the basis of age or residence and others would have died and no longer have an interest in the outcome.
Meanwhile Boris and his lot in No 10 remain hell bent on exiting by 31 0ctober, or very shortly thereafter, no matter what legal obstacles are placed in the way. The vote in the Commons last week is believed to have ensured that the UK cannot crash out then or later until all necessary enabling legislation has been enacted. The Second Reading will not allow amendments but these could come in a flurry at the next stage and make exiting by October 31 virtually impractical – unless the government has some tricky move up its sleeve to confound all and sundry.
Such manoeuvres of the government, some described as chicanery, underlie a widespread view that Boris and No 10 cannot be trusted and given their past record, and the highly secretive manner in which WA2 was drafted, and then withheld from much of the Cabinet until the last days before Parliament met, there is cause.
An analysis of the Super-Saturday vote on the procedural motion has suggested to some that WA2 would pass if the Speaker were to allow it to be voted on in the next day or two. Having lost the procedural vote Boris had pulled the substantive motion on WA2 to buy time and dumbfound the EU Commission. Being obliged to request the EU to give a further time extension that he doesn’t want he will still need to bring the DUP and a breakaway group from Labour onside and get the enabling legislation done. The government is threatening to keep Parliament working day and night, 7 days a week, until that is done. Should the process get stuck again there will be serious calls for a General Election – Boris can’t keep governing with a minority of some 40 votes in Parliament; or there could be a second referendum. The EU would be bound to grant an extension in these circumstances. There are indications they would accede to an extension at least until February or even longer for good reasons. Meanwhile the UK remains in the EU but Boris refuses to acknowledge the fact by withholding further participation in its institutions.
The Labour Party for its part has not kept closed ranks on any issue and is divided over the issue of a General Election or a referendum and their timing, while the DUP has objections to WA2 on the ground that it threatens the unity of the Union. Recent reports indicate that both Labour and the DUP now believe that the UK would be better off in a customs union with the EU and will be tabling amendments to that effect when the enabling legislation is presented. While this had reflected broad opinion in the Labour Party for some time it is a turnaround for the DUP who see this as the best way to overcome the long standing border issue, to secure the Union’s integrity, and overcome other regulatory problems. Nothing could be more calculated to bring matters back to square one and thwart the exit move itself. If a deal does go ahead Labour will move that it be subject anyway to a popular confirmatory vote.
The game now is really about power in the UK. The policy consequences of Brexit for the political parties is secondary. It is not secondary however for business, the economy, citizens’ interests, and many other critical aspects of life. As for WA2 itself the government is well satisfied as it has eliminated all references to a ‘level playing field’ and a customs union with the EU, and will seek at most an FTA. In any event this would be for negotiation over the relatively short implementation period assuming Boris sticks with his WA2 unamended and doesn’t crash out unilaterally. If Boris does purport to crash out in the face of legitimate counter-measures one could be sure that in one form or another Brexit will be back again in Court.
Boris’ strong card, currently, if he has one, arises from the mantra: “Let’s get it done – the people are waiting”. This is the incalculable factor. The Tories and those of its persuasion are becoming very anxious that the government might be upended by an impatient electorate sometime soon and lose government altogether. It must recalled that the Brexit option only got started under David Cameron in order to shut down its hard anti-EU factions, its Brexiteers, which misfired for the mainstream Tories thereafter; and following Theresa May’s mishandling Brexit had became a ‘save the Tories’ imperative; and now it’s a save the Boris imperative and his position as PM despite his many self-inflicted wounds.
Whether those wounds will get much deeper, even fatally, will be determined in the Parliament either over the next few days or the next several months.
Andrew Farran is a former diplomat, law academic and trade adviser who recently spent time in the UK observing Brexit