Brexit: The Uncancelled Election

Brexit: The Uncancelled Election

May 2019 | Politics

After months of deadlock, The Brexit Party victory in the European Elections changed nothing. The Conservative Leadership contest will change everything.

They are the elections that were never supposed to happen. Last week the UK took part in the European Elections, and the results were as unpredictable as expected. Nigel Farage's brand new Brexit Party won. The Liberal Democrats came second, with Labour in third and the Conservatives trailing in fifth behind even the Greens. As always, Scotland bucked the trend with the SNP dominating, the Brexit Party in a distant second and Labour trailing in fifth behind the Lib Dems and Tories.

Equal Forces

Naturally, Farage and his lieutenants are touting the result as an overwhelming mandate for a No Deal Brexit. Ann Widdecombe, once a Tory MP and now a Brexit Party MEP, demanded a seat for her new party at the negotiating table, even though they were standing on a ticket of walking away from said negotiations. To be fair to Ms Widdecombe and her colleagues, the result was not close. The Brexit Party are now the largest single party group in the European Parliament with 29 seats – 5 more than Farage's old party won in 2014. Their vote share was 11% higher than the next biggest party, which is a significant gap. It was no landslide though. The Brexit Party won just 31% of the vote and 40% of MEPs. No party has ever won a majority at a Westminster election in modern times with such a low share of the vote.

Remainers have spent the last few days gleefully pointing out that the combined Brexit Party and UKIP share was lower than the one achieved by the three parties supporting the People's Vote campaign for a second referendum – the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and Change UK. This misses the point as Remain parties didn't win a majority either, but it is clear that there are two diametrically opposing forces in British Politics with roughly similarly support. Sitting between them is a shrinking group of diehard Labour and Conservatives desperately looking for a compromise that suits both sides. Last week that search for a compromise claimed its most high profile casualty – with the resignation of Theresa May as Conservative Leader scheduled for next week. A contest to replace her as both Tory Leader and Prime Minister is already underway, with a No Deal supporter widely expected to win. Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn is under extreme pressure to back a second referendum even from his own loyalists. There was a remarkable attack on Labour's Brexit policy from the normally loyal Emily Thornberry during the BBC's election coverage that has provoked a bitter debate in Corbyn's inner circle.

Entrenched Positions

Not long ago, No Deal and People's Vote were both seen as extreme positions by the majority of voters on both sides on the Brexit debate. Now they are mainstream positions, but their support is not as entrenched as many commentators believe. Leavers want to leave and are convinced that No Deal is the only way it could happen given the parliamentary shenanigans of the last 6 months. Remainers want a close relationship with the EU – most reluctantly accepted the result of the 2016 referendum but have reacted to the prospect of No Deal by demanding a re-run of the previous vote which they (probably incorrectly) believe they would win. These are not mutually exclusive positions. It is perfectly possible to leave with a deal that maintains a close relationship with the EU if all sides were serious about reaching this position. If a viable Brexit deal passed the Commons, it would get widespread support from both sides assuming it met the leave campaign's stated red lines on sovereignty and immigration, particularly if Boris Johnson and Michael Gove were the ones selling it.

Two groups are standing in the way of a withdrawal agreement passing – Jeremy Corbyn and the DUP. Neither will support any Brexit deal that can be negotiated by the current government. It is clear from the failed cross-party talks that Labour will not support any deal backed by the Conservatives, regardless of what he thinks about in private. Theresa May was ousted because she essentially gave into Labour's proposed six-point Brexit plan, but Corbyn still opposed it. The DUP won't agree to any deal that is acceptable to the EU. Some believe that the DUP are trying to use Brexit to kill the Good Friday Agreement and force a hard border between the North and South of Ireland. This is a high-risk strategy because it is widely believed that No Deal would immediately be followed by an Irish Border Poll and the reunification of Ireland. This sceptical view of the DUP may be wrong, as their MEP Diane Dodds claimed on Monday that her party do not actually want No Deal, which will come as a surprise to their critics.

New Leadership

By the end of July, the Conservatives will have a new leader. That leader will have a harder line on Brexit than the current leader, as the Tory membership will back the strongest Leave supporter put to them by MPs. The favourite is Boris Johnson, which in normal circumstances would disqualify him from actually winning. It still might, as few people believe his commitment to Brexit is genuine. If Dominic Raab were to make it to the final two then he would beat Johnson easily. However, a change of leader on its own does not solve the government's problem. Regardless of who leads the Conservative party and what their preferred Brexit stance is, the government does not have a majority. Parliament has voted on all possible Brexit options over the last few weeks and rejected every one of them.

They are reliant on DUP support to get Brexit through the House of Commons, and the DUP won't agree to any proposal which makes changes to the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. The EU have made keeping an open Irish border a political priority, and have concluded that in practical terms this requires regulatory alignment between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland as well as for Northern Ireland to be in a customs union of some description with the EU. Various UK proposals to use technology rather the legal mechanisms to guarantee an open border have been rejected by the European Commission, primarily because the technology in question is unproven and years away from practical application. The EU is a highly risk adverse organisation – it is not about to trust its border security to cutting edge technology. The stumbling block is the EU's other demand for regulatory alignment, as this requires some form of inspection regime in Irish seaports for goods coming from Great Britain to ensure they meet EU trading standards. This the root of the DUP's objection to the backstop, which can only be solved by staying in the single market. However, the DUP also oppose that solution for ideological reasons. They are after all a right-wing populist party.

A Gamble Too Far?

The obvious solution to the current deadlock is for the Conservatives to win a majority at a new General Election. Then the Conservatives would be able to ignore the DUP and pass whatever withdrawal agreement they negotiate regardless of what other parties think of it. This is how British politics traditionally works. As Jeremy Hunt best explained this week, there is a very serious roadblock preventing the government from taking this approach. Namely that they would likely lose any general election because the Brexit Party has said they would take part in it. Next week's Peterborough by-election should give some idea of the likely outcome of a possible pre-Brexit General Election. Some hardliners might be tempted to form an alliance with the Brexit Party at a general election, but this would be extremely risky. A detailed analysis of the European Election results shows that 25% of Conservative voters are Remainers, who backed the Liberal Democrats last Thursday. A No Deal Conservative Party would still lose an election because they would not be able to count on their votes.

Instead, the strategy of No Deal supporters is to win the Conservative leadership and then run down the clock. The EU can't grant a further extension unless the UK Government ask for one, and a No Deal supporting Prime Minister is under no obligation to request an extension even if MPs vote for it. Unfortunately for them, there is a small band of a dozen arch-Remainer conservatives led by Dominic Grieve who would vote down the government if they tried this strategy. It would end their careers, but most of them are either retiring or under threat of deselection anyway. In this scenario, an interim caretaker Prime Minister would be installed to request an extension, after which a General Election would follow. This then leads us back to the previous scenario of a Labour minority government backed by either the SNP or the Liberal Democrats.

A Way Out?

Some journalists believe that Prime Minister Boris will instead do the unthinkable, and put a rebranded Withdrawal Agreement to a referendum. This would likely be a two-stage referendum so that both Remain and No Deal are also included on the ballot. I'm not so sure – the Tories ousted Theresa May for proposing exactly this solution last week. However, a hardliner Brexiter might be able to pull it off. Ironically, this is what I thought Theresa May would do back in November. Too much has happened for it to be a viable option now.

Instead, we will likely see the Conservatives tearing up their red lines and negotiating a new withdrawal agreement alongside the DUP. The resulting deal would probably replace the backstop with an indefinite transition period that resembles the Swiss relationship with the EU – complete with their version of freedom of movement. There would be outrage from Labour and The Brexit Party, but this agreement might be able to scrape through the Commons with support from the DUP and Labour rebels. The Conservative right have long campaigned for reduced immigration, but it's not a first-order priority for them. Their objection to EU membership is based on the shared sovereignty required by the Maastricht Treaty. The only thing we can be sure of is that the unexpected will happen. This starts with the Tory leadership election, a contest which always springs a surprise result.

Written by Alan Chatfield