Brexit: The End of the Beginning

Brexit: The End of the Beginning

March 2019 | Politics

After months of paralysis, both major party leaders were forced into major u-turns last week. With time running out, the deadlock will soon be broken.

It has been two weeks since the formation of the Independent Group, and already they've had an impact far exceeding their small numbers. Both major parties have been forced to shift their positions on Brexit in the face of internal pressure and the threat of further defections to the new commons grouping.

The Lady is for Turning

The most significant of those shifts was made by Theresa May on Tuesday when she agreed to hold a binding parliamentary vote on extending article 50, should the withdrawal agreement be rejected when it next comes before Parliament. She has resisted doing this for months because of pressure from backbench leavers, who have the support of the Conservative party members in the country at large. This was reinforced over the weekend at a party activist conference where 80% of attendees passed a motion asking for No Deal to be left on the table.

There has been plenty of pressure in the cabinet to rule out No Deal, with the issue coming to a head last weekend following reports that between 3 and 20 ministers were planning to resign if asked to vote against ruling out No Deal. These are resignations that the Prime Minister can ill afford, as she's running out of backbenchers willing to replace them in government jobs. It is clear now that so long as supporting the Deal remains government policy then the Tories will stay broadly united despite their very public disagreements.

The Malthouse Compromise

There has been movement on the ERG side too, with the majority of eurosceptics abstaining from the motion calling on parliament to vote on No Deal. Only 20 MPs voted against it. Over the last few weeks, there has been a notable softening in the rhetoric of ERG leader Jacob Rees-Mogg about the kind of withdrawal agreement amendments that would be acceptable to his supporters. They're still looking for a time limit to the backstop, but the length and nature of that limit has crept up over time. There has also been a recognition that a short extension to article 50 is inevitable, if only because the laws needed to prepare the UK for Brexit can't be passed before the end of the month.

The catalyst for these shifts in Conservative thinking has been housing minister, Kit Malthouse, who brought the various factions together at the end of January and forged a compromise Brexit policy that has widespread support amongst Tory MPs, but not within the Cabinet. At its core is a recognition that both wings of the Conservative Party want the same Canada style free trade agreement with the EU in the long term, and that a 3 year transition period is needed for it to be negotiated during which trade arrangements should continue on their current terms. The internal party disagreement is about the best route to getting there and the fallback option should this fail. The eurosceptics are desperate to avoid being tied into a suboptimal future relationship at any cost. They will reluctantly vote for Theresa May's Brexit deal if Attorney General, Geoffrey Cox, can find a legal wording which allows the UK to withdraw from the backstop if it threatens to become permanent. Whether the EU will give it to them will become clear this week.

An Inconvenient Policy

On the other side of the commons, it is likely that a group of Labour MPs will switch to supporting the withdrawal agreement when it returns before Parliament. This band of 30 or more MPs are opposed to the other big Brexit policy shift of last week - Jeremy Corbyn finally bowing to the inevitable and backing a second referendum. This group are fiercely opposed to no deal, but want to block a referendum which they believe would alienate the working class voters needed for Labour to win an election. This will inevitably lead them to support whatever Brexit deal is on the table because Labour are not in a position to negotiate a better one. Theresa May has also added assurances on the environment and workers rights to help win their support and that of the trade unions.

Jeremy Corbyn would probably be among this group of reluctant deal backers if he weren't leader. He has been notably hesitant to shift Labour's Brexit position to supporting a second referendum, despite widespread support for one amongst the party membership. In the end, the threat of further defections has forced his hand. The news that Labour would advocate a people's vote was half-hearted, with the leader clearly unhappy to be making the announcement, despite it being official party policy to back a referendum if the available Brexit deal didn't meet Labour's six tests. There were rumours over the weekend that the shift would happen, along with various formulations of what the referendum options would be. In the end, the shadow cabinet remainers led by John McDonnell and Emily Thornberry won out, despite a late intervention by Unite to stop them.

Watson Strikes Back

The biggest political winner of the past week has undoubtedly been Tom Watson. The Labour deputy leader has been a powerless and impotent figure since the 2017 General Election, but last week's defections to TIG emboldened him. The Labour leadership are clearly worried that a large scale party split could destroy their chances of getting into power and know that Watson is the only person capable of preventing one. This has given him leverage over the rest of the shadow cabinet that he didn't have previously. He used this to great effect last week, in pushing for the change in Brexit stance but also in the long running internal battle over antisemitism. There is no way that Corbyn willingly chose Charlie Falconer, a close friend and ally of Tony Blair to investigate anti-semitism claims. It's a panic move. Watson may yet overreach as he has in the past. Picking a fight with party general secretary Jennie Formby may backfire. However, it is clear that the Labour party's disciplinary processes aren't working and the responsibility for that ultimately lies with Formby, although she blamed political intervention from the leadership for the failure to hold disciplinary hearings against suspended members.

Tom Watson's biggest win though was engineering the suspension of Chris Williamson, a close ally of the leadership. Corbyn initially tried to prevent the suspension but was forced to act after overwhelming pressure from MPs. This matters because Williamson is leader of the grassroots campaign to deselect moderate MPs and replace them with hardliners. As such, he is popular among Momentum supporters but not with his colleagues at Westminster. There has been pushback from local associations against his suspension, but not enough to force the leadership to readmit him. With Charlie Falconer and Tom Watson watching it will be far more difficult for the shadow cabinet to bypass party procedures in his aid.

Beginning of the End

There is a definite feeling now that Jeremy Corbyn's days as Labour leader are numbered. His claim to be a man of principle has been undermined by his handling of Brexit. He would not be able to survive another election defeat. The unexpected gains made in 2017 have convinced his supporters that they will win next time. They are likely to be disappointed, and sooner rather than later. Everybody knows that Theresa May will not last as Conservative leader much beyond Brexit day. She has few allies and many enemies. She survived December's leadership challenge only due to its timing. The next one will happen at the end of the year unless she voluntarily steps down before then. Her replacement will be a leave supporter untainted by association with a deeply unpopular withdrawal agreement. Regardless of who that person is, a general election will surely follow soon after their ascension to the post of Prime Minister.

In the meantime, the deal will pass the House of Commons at the end of March and Brexit will occur in late May. The withdrawal agreement is a profoundly flawed compromise, but there is too much opposition to the alternatives for it to be blocked permanently. Later this month either No Deal or a second referendum will become practically impossible, and the supporters of that option will be left with no choice but to back the deal. The price paid by those who pass it will be high, but after months of paralysis, the impasse has been broken. Even after The Independent Group disappear into obscurity the impact of their actions will be felt for generations.

Written by Alan Chatfield