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Sunday, 17 December 2017

Whither Brexit?

Last week was the week that the hard Brexiters' luck finally ran out.

The hardliners have had a good run - implausibly good, in fact.  For years, radical Euroscepticism was a minority position, both in the Conservative Party and in the country as a whole.  When the likes of Iain Duncan Smith and John Redwood first emerged as anti-EU crusaders in the 1990s, they were treated as a joke.  Media commentators called them "headbangers"; John Major called them "bastards"; and it was accurately observed that they had "all the characteristics of populists except for popularity".  David Cameron recognised how badly this sort of thing had gone down with the voters, and he became Conservative leader on an express promise to stop his party from "banging on about Europe".  The paradigm anti-EU party, UKIP, was not competitive in general elections until 2015; and even then it won an unimpressive 12.6% vote share and one single MP.  Everyone assumed that Remain would win the referendum; and the narrow Leave victory, while surprising, did not signal a national conversion to IDS's view of the world.  It is plainly not arguable that all of the 52% were headbangers.  When the debate turned to what kind of Brexit we would have, the early assumption was some sort of Norway-minus.  When the term "hard Brexit" was originally coined, the general assumption was that it was a bad thing.  For a brief moment, those who actively promoted it stood out as eccentrics.

So, nothing about the shape of the political landscape in the weeks after the referendum made it especially likely that Government policy would end up aiming at a hard Brexit.  And yet it did - until now, at least.  When Theresa May came into office in July 2016, she appointed the "three Brexiteers" to major Cabinet positions.  She created a whole new ministry - the Department for International Trade - whose existence implicitly presupposed that the UK would be leaving the customs union.  May formally turned hard Brexit into express Government policy in her party conference speech in October 2016 and her Lancaster House speech in January 2017.

Whether May decided to go down this path out of genuine conviction or because she calculated that her survival in office was dependent on appeasing the headbanging wing of her party is a question that we can leave to the biographers.  Her gratuitous decision to turn the obscure question of the role of the European Court of Justice into a red-line issue does suggest that she felt burnt by her experience with European courts as Home Secretary.  In any event, however, the point is that she did go down this road, even though she didn't have to.

And now the honeymoon is over.  May lost the vote on giving Parliament a binding vote on the withdrawal agreement.  What has been less well publicised is that her government has staved off defeat on a series of other votes on the Brexit Bill only by making significant concessions to pro-European backbenchers.  And the Lords stages of the Bill are still to come.  The House of Lords is a Remainer stronghold, to the degree that Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nigel Farage have suggested creating hundreds of new peers to swamp the current members.  While their lordships generally back down in battles with the elected house (they have not outright rejected a bill from the Commons since the Hunting Act 2004), there is reason to believe that they may be more assertive in circumstances where the Commons is fatally divided and led by a minority government.

What the Commons vote last week revealed - or rather, confirmed, because we knew this already - is that there is no majority in the House for the Government's hard Brexit policy.  Only 11 MPs rebelled on Wednesday night, but no-one thinks that 11 is the sum total of the constituency for a soft Brexit.  A rough count indicates that over 40% of current Conservative MPs supported Remain in the referendum, and that's not counting members of the new 2017 intake.  MPs are unlikely to stop Brexit altogether, but they might well reject a deal that is too "hard".  The fury of Brexiteers - the death threats against Anna Soubry, the talk of deselection, the demagoguery of the Daily Mail - all this conceals a profound fear.  The headbangers know that the numbers are against them.  They have had their moment in the sun, and now they can see the clouds gathering.  They howl with rage because there is damn all else that they can do.

As everybody noticed, there was a rich irony in hard Brexiteers wanting to cut Parliament out of the withdrawal process, given that restoring parliamentary sovereignty has been the ostensible goal of the whole Brexit project.  As someone said on Twitter, "O God, make Parliament sovereign, but not yet".  It was the rebels who were seeking to uphold the authority of Parliament, rather than giving the executive a blank cheque.  They also had a practical argument on their side.  As one Labour MP pointed out, "I don't think I can get this past my members" is a classic trade union negotiating tactic, and one that May should be glad to have in her pocket during the Brexit talks.  In all, the Grieve amendment should not have been a matter of controversy; there was nothing to be said for the Government's position.  The headbangers squawked about the referendum result - but the 52% were never asked if they wanted to stop Parliament from holding the executive to account, and it is not difficult to guess what they would have said if they had been.  In any case, there is no convention that referendum results mean that MPs cannot fight over the consequent legislation in Parliament.  Conservative MPs voted against the Scotland Act 1998 after a much larger (74%) Yes vote in the Scottish devolution referendum.  At the end of the day, high-minded constitutional principles evidently count for less among the headbangers than protecting a policy outcome that they really, really want to happen.

One possible way out of the present predicament would be for a hard-Brexit Tory to knife May, hope for a bounce in the polls, and then put down a motion for an early election in the hope of altering the parliamentary arithmetic.  But an early election is not an option while Jeremy Corbyn is within striking distance of Number 10.  Indeed, the best case scenario for the Tories from another election would be a small, 2015-size majority - which is precisely the situation that May was trying to escape from when she dissolved Parliament earlier this year.  It has well been said that the current Parliament would either collapse within months or stay the full course to 2022.  The latter now seems likely.  The parliamentary arithmetic is not an accident; it is a reflection of a deeply divided society.  Both sides are just going to have to accept this underlying reality and work with it.

The Tory Government is not going to fall either.  If May loses a confidence vote, convention dictates that the Queen will send for Jeremy Corbyn.  The DUP will probably swallow a soft Brexit, but they are unlikely to throw the premiership to a man who wants to take Northern Ireland out of the UK.  Plus, a Corbyn minority government probably would opt for an early election (which the Tories could not credibly be seen to block), so bringing the Tories down would probably lead to a new Parliament in which the DUP would lose the balance of power.  There is a pleasant fantasy that Vince Cable could lead a government of national unity, but I doubt that any unrepentant Remainer is going to be allowed near Downing Street in the foreseeable future.

So, the Conservative Government is trapped in office, with a Commons dominated by Remainers and soft-Brexiters, but a party heavily influenced by its headbanging wing.  A strong PM could get a soft Brexit through Parliament by relying mainly on Opposition votes.  Blair did this sort of thing sometimes - but Theresa May is no Tony Blair.

The Cabinet are set to discuss the end destination of Brexit soon.  Johnson and Gove are already talking about scrapping the working time laws.  We didn't really need further proof that the Tory Brexiters' passion for a Victorian vision of Britain extends to taking the limits off employees' working conditions, but here it is anyway.  Apart from being a troublingly regressive step, this is politically stupid.  One of the few things that May got right when drawing up her election manifesto this year was that the voters of 2017 Britain are in an insecure and defensive mood.  The 52% weren't angry because they thought they had too many rights at work.  Jeremy Corbyn must be rubbing his hands.

God knows how May will negotiate all this with her Cabinet, and God knows how she will negotiate our withdrawal with the EU27.  Keeping a soft border in Ireland without imposing a new internal UK border points to something approaching membership of the single market and customs union, although it will clearly have to be called something else.  The same broad outcome is indicated by the fact that the City will be crashed by a Canada-style deal; and the EU27 seem unlikely at this point to offer us any cake-and-eat-it arrangement which falls between Canada and Norway-minus.  It has been reported that some Leavers are now resigned to an outcome of this sort.  Apparently, they are pointing to the precedent of Ireland.  The southern part of Ireland initially achieved only partial independence, in the form of the Irish Free State (1922-1937), and did not become a republic free from ties to the British crown until 1948.  This is a truly bizarre analogy for right-wing British nationalists to use, but it shows at least some resignation to the inevitable.  They would also do well to bear in mind another consideration, which amounts to an inconvenient truth for Remainers - the more likely a soft Brexit becomes, the less likely we are to exit from Brexit altogether.