And then there were two

Even by the standards of recent times, the last week at Westminster was extraordinary.  It started with Mrs May abandoning her stated intention of putting the government’s agreement with the EU to a vote in the House, it continued with a vote of no confidence in her premiership which she narrowly and far from convincingly overcame, and it ended with her being rebuffed by the EU and publicly humiliated in a way that no British prime minister has been since De Gaulle refused Harold MacMillan’s request for the UK to join the then EEC in the early 1960s.

Each of these three events would in more normal times be considered momentous on their own.  Governments do not usually withdraw their main item of legislation without even allowing MPs to vote on it, and there is almost no precedent for them doing so for an international treaty they have laboriously concluded with another sovereign power.  Prime ministers do not routinely find that over 100 of their own MPs have so little faith in them that they are prepared to vote against them continuing in office, and few British premiers have gone to Brussels in such a supplicatory mood and been so completely refused even a fig-leaf of help.

Indeed after a week like that, one might well ask not only how Mrs May carries on but why.   It would be hard to imagine a more thankless and depressing task than being prime minister at the moment:  she has lost the support of her party, she cannot get her legislation through parliament, she has given up much of her power of patronage by conceding that she will not lead the Tories into the next election and she is almost disdainfully ignored by her fellow heads of government in the EU, who have long since concluded that without the ability to back her words up with legislative action, any negotiations they conclude with her or any concessions they give her are largely valueless.

But battle on she does, for the moment, and as she has now categorically defined her premiership by the execution of Brexit – her statement that she will stand down before the next election ensures that she will be known for nothing else – it is to this, and what happens next, that we must turn.

The newspapers are full of complex diagrams on what might happen, and on the chances of this outcome or that.  But, with the proviso that nothing is completely impossible in politics, we believe that the options in front of Britain are quite quickly narrowing down to just two:  leaving the EU on 29 March 2019 with no deal, or not leaving at all.

None of the other options in front of the country would seem on deeper reflection to have any realistic chance of being implemented.  We assume that Mrs May still hopes in due course to re‑present her deal to parliament, but having publicly said herself that it is unsatisfactory (for this is what her dash to Brussels to seek “assurances” on the Irish backstop amounts to), it is very hard to see MPs rallying round to it.  Certainly there is no sign of a groundswell of MPs turning more favourably towards it, and many would say that they are right to not do so – as we have observed in our earlier articles, it is a very poor deal from the UK’s point of view.

Nor are the various other options for agreements with Europe remotely likely.  A Norway-style deal, relying on EEA[1] membership, would be deeply unattractive to too many people, not least because it entails the continuance of free movement of peoples between the UK and the EU.  But even if Parliament decided it was the least bad option, there is the small matter of getting the consent of the EFTA countries[2].  And understandably the three countries in EFTA that are party to the EEA agreement, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein – respectively small, very small and tiny – are wary of the UK joining their organisation and immediately becoming well over 90% of the EFTA side of the EEA.

Norway has in fact already stated publicly that it would not welcome the UK joining EFTA, and Switzerland, always nervous that their special arrangements with the EU will come under closer scrutiny, would also not.  And in any event, if the UK were to join EFTA, the EU might conclude that EFTA had changed so radically that the EEA agreement itself would need to be renegotiated from scratch.

Nor is concluding a Canada-style agreement remotely possible in the time available to the UK.  It took the EU and Canada 7 years to conclude their trade agreement, and the UK would certainly seek a deal at least as comprehensive if not more so.  There is neither the time nor the desire in Brussels to go down that route at this time.

Nor is reopening Mrs May’s deal possible, for all that the Labour party continues to claim that it is and that they would be able to achieve better terms in a renegotiation.  The EU has been pretty straightforward on this matter:  blunt, uncompromising, legalistic, unhelpful, but easy to understand.  They follow the following principles:

1) We don’t bend our rules (least of all for someone about to leave)

2) We will look after Ireland

3) We will protect our citizens and their rights

4) We want the money you have signed up to pay us for agreed projects

And that, basically, is it.  They have a deal that meets these four requirements and as they have repeatedly said, they have no intention of revisiting it.   And after the events of last week and the abject failure of Mrs May’s appeal in Brussels, which part of this does the Labour party still not understand?

Even if Mrs May’s deal, or a close variant of it, was accepted by the House of Commons, there is still a large amount of subsidiary legislation that will need to be enacted to put it into effect – and with no majority in the House and firmly held views against her, the chance of the government getting everything done by March would be limited even if the work started straight away.

And so, all attempts to find a managed exit that preserves the economic links but not the social ones having failed, we come down to the two corner solutions.  They are, and always have been, to leave with no deal or to revoke the Article 50 letter and stay in the EU – a move that the ECJ has helpfully said the UK can unilaterally make.

The route to leaving with no deal is simple.  Indeed, it is now the default option, because unless something else happens to stop it, it will take place in just over 3 months’ time.  This is what the hard Brexiteers have always known all along – if they continue to obstruct and deny the government any other option, this is where the UK will end up.   In retrospect one wonders whether David Davis was ever that serious in his negotiations with the EU:  once he had seen the size of the financial payment a managed exit would entail, the completeness of a no deal exit no doubt appealed to him.  And he could even claim it was the embodiment of Mrs May’s ill-advised comment that “no deal is better than a bad deal”.

The route to staying in the EU is more complex.  Although the government could decide on this course of action on its own initiative, simply by Mrs May withdrawing her Article 50 letter, most MPs accept that to take such a step without the consent of the electorate in a second referendum would make a fraught situation probably even more volatile.  But with neither major party leader – both in their own ways totally boxed in by their past statements and stances on the matter – embracing a second referendum at all willingly, it would probably require Parliament as a whole to exert its will against the executive and force the government to ask the electorate to decide.

Many in Westminster are nervous about a second referendum, fearing that it would reopen and exacerbate the divisions in British society and lead to considerable social unrest, and without doubt deciding on the question (or questions) on the ballot paper would be difficult.  And it is not immediately obvious how the actual process of the House forcing the government to act against the prime minister’s stated wishes would work.  But even so, it remains the ultimate way of deciding the country’s future, and increasingly, the bulk of sensible MPs, who fear that a no-deal exit would be both chaotic and disastrous and who take their responsibilities for the country’s welfare seriously, are beginning to see a second vote as a way out of a problem that Westminster seems unable itself to solve.

This then is the position that Britain’s politicians have brought the country to.  Both major parties are riven by dissent, neither are able to put the national interest above their own party interest.  The Conservative party is one party in name only;  its members are openly at war with each other and over a third publicly have no confidence in their leader.  The Labour party is little better, with the leadership playing political games and nakedly subordinating the country’s future to whatever short term tactic looks more likely to bring them to power.   Neither leader is trusted by the electorate, both face dissent from large numbers of their own MPs and both have heavily negative approval figures in public polls.

As a result, all compromise or middle way positions are falling away, and we are left, as we say, with the two absolutist or corner solutions.  Both are complete and coherent in themselves:  the first ends all links, both the social links but also the economic ones, while the second preserves the links, both the economic links but also the social ones.  Both would, in the narrow sense, “work” – and both are entirely within the UK’s competence to execute unilaterally.

Whether either is desirable is another matter entirely …


[1]              EEA:  European Economic Area.  It is sometimes assumed in the British press that the EEA is an “outer ring” to the EU in some way, and that the UK would be able to retain “membership of the EEA” automatically on its departure from the EU.  But this misunderstands the EEA completely.  It is not a separate organisation at all and does not have “members”.  Rather, it is an extension of the EU’s single market established by an agreement (the “EEA Agreement”) between the EU and EFTA, under which participating EFTA states have access to the EU’s internal market but obey many of its rules.  To benefit from the EEA agreement a state has to be either a member state of the EU or a member state of EFTA – and the UK would need to formally join EFTA to do so.

[2]              EFTA:  European Free Trade Area, consisting of Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein.  Switzerland has its own bilateral relationships and agreements with the EU, while the other three have concluded the EEA Agreement as a joint agreement.


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