Brexit: Breaking Point

Brexit: Breaking Point

April 2019 | Politics

After months of deadlock, politicians are finally trying to find a consensus on Brexit. If they fail, the British People will try to find new politicians.

Today marks five months since the Brexit withdrawal agreement was signed. Yet, remarkably the UK is no closer to leaving the EU now than it was in November. The intervening period has seen a period of deep political paralysis unheard of in the post-war era.

At the time the agreement was signed many commentators questioned whether there was a majority in the UK Parliament to pass the deal or anything like it. That question was conclusively answered a few weeks ago when the House of Commons rejected all possible outcomes to Brexit in the Indicative Votes process dreamed up by Yvette Cooper and Oliver Letwin. The pair subsequently pushed through a bill binding the government on the one issue that the Commons could agree - that there cannot be a No Deal Brexit under any circumstances. The end result was a six month extension to Brexit, which may not be the last.

The Uncompromising Compromise

A determined government could force through No Deal against the wishes of Parliament, but the consequences would be disastrous for all involved. The risks involved with No Deal are high and would require both parliamentary legislation and EU cooperation to mitigate. Given the current deadlock, it is by no means guaranteed that the Conservatives could get either thereby plunging both the UK and Europe into recession. A carefully planned 'Managed No Deal' might be enough to avoid economic carnage but this isn't currently on offer despite the wishes of Brexiteers.

The Malthouse Compromise supported by the bulk of the Conservative party envisages the UK and EU mutually agreeing that No Deal is the way forward months before it actually happens, and then entering into a standstill transition period during which a series of mini-deals are struck on relevant areas of co-operation, and required legislation is passed in the UK Parliament. This gives the hardliners the loose relationship they want while meeting the concerns of moderates about the risks involved.

The problem is that the Malthouse Compromise is an internal compromise within the Conservative Party, one that neither the EU or the UK government supports. Individual figures on both sides might agree that it is the best way forward in the event of No Deal, but they have to intellectually commit to No Deal first, which would require new leadership. If a Hard Brexiteer takes over the Conservative party and wins the subsequent General Election, then this will happen, but there are a lot of ifs in that scenario.

First, the Conservative party needs to get rid of Theresa May, which is something they are now actively looking to do but requires changes to party rules. Then a Hard Brexiteer needs to win the resulting leadership contest, which to be fair is very likely. Then they need to win the subsequent General Election on a No Deal mandate, which is vanishingly unlikely as it would require them to make gains on the 2017 General Election.

The Impossible Possibilities

No Deal is now the most popular form of Brexit among Brexiteers, but this is really only because alternative forms of Brexit have been ruled out. Many support it because it appears to be the only form of Brexit that is actually deliverable. By blocking any type of compromise, the ERG have reluctantly persuaded many Brexiteers to back their position, but not all. There is a large amount of residual support for Theresa May and her deal. If Theresa May is ousted and replaced by a No Dealer than that support will likely switch to the only other political party currently offering a compromise Brexit deal: The Labour Party. If the Conservatives want to win a general election, they need the backing of both Deal and No Deal supporters. That now looks impossible due to the intransigence of the ERG.

On the other side of the Brexit debate, there has been an equivalent backlash. A petition to revoke Article 50 got six million signatures - a record for the official UK petitions site. That number would have been unthinkable six months ago. At the time of the referendum there was a general mood among Remainers of reluctant acceptance. They thought the choice to leave was the wrong one, but they accepted it had been decided by a democratic vote and supported a negotiated withdrawal agreement. There are hardline remainers too, who are as culpable for the current mess as the ERG. However, until very recently they were a small but vocal minority vastly over-represented in Parliament. Hardline brexiteers blocking the negotiated withdrawal has incensed the majority of remainers, and led many to reconsider their support for the Brexit project entirely. If brexiteers won't listen to their concerns about Brexit, then why should remainers pay any attention to what brexiteers want?

The Divisive Consensus

Fortunately, the leadership of the two main parties are far more grown-up than this. Theresa May surprised many by offering to meet Jeremy Corbyn to negotiate a compromise Brexit policy without preconditions. Those negotiations are ongoing, and appear to be genuine. It is far from certain that an agreement can be reached as there are major differences between the two parties in their attitudes towards Europe. Labour policy is to stay in the Customs Union, but for many Conservatives leaving a Customs Union is a red line that cannot be crossed. By compromising on it, Theresa May is at risk of being forced out before a cross-party compromise can be reached. The electoral consequences of this on the Conservative party will be brutal. Failure to deliver Brexit would be an existential threat to one of the world's oldest and most successful political parties.

The level of public anger towards politicians at the moment is unprecedented, and the Tories are at the epicentre of it. Labour and the minor parties have not escaped the blame and have suffered too, but the government benches have borne the brunt of the public ire. The public are heartedly sick of Brexit and just want politicians to get on with it so that other more relevant concerns can be addressed. The only thing holding up Conservative support is a belief that only they can deliver Brexit. The belated attempt at compromise has won the respect of everyone except the hardliners. The problem is that these hardliners believe they represent the majority, when in fact they are a minority. This will become clear at the end of May when the European Elections are held. Nigel Farage's new Brexit Party will do moderately well and the Conservative Party very badly, which will lull No Deal supporters into believing their position could win them a general election when it can't.

As such, there is a strong possibility that Jeremy Corbyn could be Prime Minister by the end of the year even though very few people believe he's capable of doing the job. The Labour moderates are working on the assumption that he wouldn't get a majority, and that potential coalition partners would demand his replacement as a condition for their support. This may not work, but it's worth a shot. Regardless, it is likely that a Labour Government would be able to deliver their proposed Brexit deal, possibly after a confirmatory referendum depending on the parliamentary arithmetic. Remainers support such a referendum because they believe they'd win - but they won't if the deal on offer is a fair one.

Either way, a compromise needs to be found and fast. An angry nation wants Brexit to be solved, and in the absence of realistic alternatives have settled on the most extreme options. The EU have given British politicians six months to find that realistic alternative. If they waste it, then the public will find new politicians who can. That's not a prospect that any of the established parties should welcome.

Written by Alan Chatfield