ANDREW FARRAN. Brexit – the final breaking point awaits?

May 24, 2019

After a brief break the Gods got stirring again and it is only a matter of time before the British political system to all intents and purposes can be said to have gone irretrievably mad. Or can that yet be turned around?  

At the beginning of the year it was inconceivable that the British would be participating in the EU Parliamentary Elections in late May when pursuant to the 2016 Referendum they should have left the EU months and months earlier.

The major parties’ participation in the elections is largely nominal, so embarrassed are they over their mishandling of and failure to deliver Brexit – or even find a viable alternative to protect the economy, let alone maintain a manageable degree of political cohesion in what is now a truly riven nation.

The leading figure in these elections is Brexiter-at-large, Nigel Farage, who leads not really a party but an incorporated company with a growing shareholder base. The Tories will be lucky to score 20% of the national vote as would Labor – both historical lows. The Liberal Democrats, almost demolished in recent national elections, will probably come in second because of their clear position on the Brexit issue, which they oppose. They will have the support of dissenting Tory Remainers like Lord Hazeltine, the former deputy prime minister in Margaret Thatcher’s government, who referred to the current Tories “as myopically focused on forcing through the biggest act of economic self-harm ever undertaken by a democratic government”, and risked descending “deeper into darkness”. John Major, a former PM, demanded an end to the virus of extremism and decried that “the middle ground of politics in empty”.

It is well understood that the core issues over Brexit do not divide evenly between the Conservatives and Labor. Far from it as each has substantial numbers of both Leavers and Remainders. But on any aspect there is not a clear Parliamentary majority, in many cases because of strong objections to key elements of Mrs May’s withdrawal agreement, notably the Irish Backstop and the retention of features of a customs union and an EU  internal market – a Brexit, it is said, in name only.

Jeremy Corbyn’s (divided) Labor Party, has been playing ducks and drakes, seeking to be all things to all people, but essentially to force a General Election to resolve his dilemmas and gain government. This prospect frightens the Tories who against all reality believe they can navigate a Brexit with minimal disruption if only they changed their leader.

To forestall any pre-emption in this respect, Mrs May will be making “a new, bold offer” to Parliament early in June to get Brexit over the line and leave the customs union and Irish border issues for post-Brexit negotiations with the EU, and giving parliament a final opportunity to vote for a confirmatory referendum to the people – if they they passed her Withdrawal Agreement for the fourth time of asking. The “offer”, negotiated over three hours in the Cabinet without any further resignations, will be attached to an enabling Withdrawal Act. It includes a temporary customs union (to be further negotiated over the transitional period); a separate bill to ensure that workers’ rights do not fall behind EU levels; a guarantee that there will be no change in the level of environmental protection when the UK leaves the EU; and a promise that parliament will be consulted on the next stage of Brexit negotiations.

It remains to be seen whether in the light of any backlash from the  European Parliamentary elections this will get Brexit across the line. Already it has been rejected sight unseen by the Jacob Rees-Mogg’s extreme European Research Group, and by a number of other Tories, and by the Labor Party. Its passage would seem yet again to be an impossibility.

If defeated and the Tories are in a nowhere to go scenario, with the prospect of further stalemates in parliament, they will almost certainly change their leader, if they have not done so already. In those circumstances a hard Brexit would seem inevitable unless a reworked withdrawal agreement of some sort was settled and made acceptable even at that late stage to the EU.

Would they turn to Boris Johnson. Johnson has been both for and against the EU in the past. He has a persuasive personality when he wants to use it but over the past year he has lost a lot of credibility. He would be faced with much the same parliamentary arithmetic as Mrs May unless he turned Brexit on its head. He has lately been promoting himself as seeking the centre ground to widen the Tory base over Brexit, and avoid parliament breaking down and a General Election becoming inevitable. Apparently in this endeavour he has wooed Rees-Mogg’s ERG to his side. It is difficult to see how, that being so, this will be achieved without effecting a reversal of the positions over all this time of all and sundry, should he be granted the prime ministership and navigate the Withdrawal Agreement through parliament on terms acceptable to enough Labor MPs and the Scottish Nationals in addition to disgruntled Tories, not to mention the EU itself.

It should be noted at this point that the incoming European Parliament and senior office holders of the Commission may not be as ‘understanding’ or accommodating towards the UK as their predecessors. The UK’s inability to recognise that fundamentally it is still in a negotiation with the EU, not just within itself, and this may continue to hinder its perceptions and the realities. Any modified terms to the withdrawal process and the Political Declaration would have to include a temporary customs arrangement with the backstop, much as Mrs May is offering now. There is no avoiding the backstop. If a Johnson led purpose were seen to be as much to stave off a General Election and a Corbyn government, he would had to have got all his Tories lined up to a man and woman, as well as the DUP. He wouldn’t have Labor at all. If this were to fail and a hard Brexit followed, it would be back to the people at a General Election, to devastating Tory embarrassment.

For those Tories and others who greatly underestimate the disruptive  consequences of a hard Brexit (leaving without an agreement) and believe resorting to WTO trade terms would provide a smooth transition, they would be well advised to heed a recent comment on ABC Radio by Pascal Lamy, the former WTO Director-General, that leaving the EU in those circumstances would be like dropping from the Premier League of world trade to the Fourth Division overnight. An ultimate act of self-harm.

It might be better this coming month to let Mrs May have her Brexit and leave the customs union/single market issue to be sorted over the next two years with a new responsible leadership at the helm.

Andrew Farran is a former diplomat, trade policy adviser, and law academic who has been following Brexit developments for some time.

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