Outside the marginals

A commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010, 2015 & 2017 elections (and THAT referendum)

What if: Stop Brexit or Exit from Brexit

There is a growing demand for either:

  • A people’s vote on the final Brexit Deal. The options not yet clear but could include any permutation of:
    • Deal on Offer,
    • No Deal,
    • Continue Negotiation,
    • Abandon Brexit
  • Just abandoning Brexit as “too difficult”, undesirable or lacking a robust undisputed mandate.

But just calling for either of these options is insufficient. There is a danger of just reversing the current polarisation rather than healing the massive divisions in the country. (Never mind the divisions in the Conservative Party – until they are resolved the country will never have political peace.)

The question has to be asked, “what are the consequences of either of the above actions and how can they be managed?” It was failure to consider the consequences of a Leave vote (two years ago!) that has left us in our current mess. We want to get out of the mess, not just turn it upside down.

If you look at lists of the “Bad Boys of Brexit” one notable absence is our former Prime Minister, that grand strategist, The Rt Hon. David William Donald (“Dave”) Cameron, P.C., M.A.(Oxon). His career was recently pithily summarised by Danny Dyer in one word. However to move forward we need to examine some of his actions in more detail because they inform us as to how he got us into the current mess and warn us of future pitfalls.

The Conservatives have for decades been bitterly split over “Europe” in a way that has proved near unmanageable by the leadership. In recent years they have also been fearful of UKIP. Under Proportional Representation UKIP can win reasonable representation in the EU Parliament, but under First Past The Post they struggle to win any representation in the Westminster Parliament – which means they can only have influence by political guerilla warfare.

In our dysfunctional parliamentary system political parties exist to gain and retain power; therefore it was quite logical for David Cameron to promise and then call a national referendum to solve a party problem.

But you can’t “just call” a referendum (even if you are certain that you will win it) – because you might not! Cameron has “form” here; he only “just won” the First Scottish Independence Referendum after a frantic scramble in the last few days of campaigning. Did he have a plan for enabling Independence if he had not won?

He did not win the European Referendum despite practically monopolising the campaign. He suffered from another of the points of dysfunction in our political system.

By disenfranchising the majority of the population (those outside the marginals) parties can obtain parliamentary majorities on minority votes. However give that population an opportunity to vote where their votes will count and they will use them – not necessarily in respect of the referendum issue itself, but definitely to express an opinion on “Call Me Dave” and his friend Gideon.

They had imposed austerity on the country but sought through language battles to make migrants and the EU the scapegoats. Lots of reasons to Vote Leave. And then they were surprised when they got a kicking.

But the grand strategist had not considered what to do if they lost the referendum – which is probably why after the result he resigned and “trotted” off, leaving a chaotic situation.

The EU never seriously anticipated that a country would wish to leave, but none-the-less included an exit mechanism (Article 50) in the Treaty of Lisbon (Official EU Text). Ironically the British had a major hand in drafting that article in order to make it difficult to leave – sort of Hotel California style. It would have made sense if the Prime Minister had considered the viability of this mechanism before calling a simplistic in/out referendum.

With the Conservative Party still split and unable to agree a negotiating stance – let alone a negotiating strategy, two years have been wasted. This tends to give rise to two reactions:

  • “We Voted for Brexit, just get on with it; Leave tomorrow with no deal if necessary.”
  • “This will never work, it is now clearly unworkable and this should have been clear before the vote.” Therefore the project should be abandoned either by parliamentary vote or by allowing the people to vote again (and they hope against Brexit).

These responses indicate how polarised the country has become since the referendum. Both sides have become more entrenched due to:

  • The narrow result,
  • The shocked horror of Remain supporters and the ecstatic delight of Leave supporters
  • The almost weekly stories about how the electorate may have been manipulated by lies or external parties,
  • The growing realisation that it is too complex to complete within the timetable,
  • The incompetence of our Brexit Negotiating Team or the perceived intransigence of Brussels (depending on which side of the political fault line you stand)
  • The increasing awareness that we can’t have Boris’s cake and eat it,
  • The approaching cliff edge

Consequently either:

  • Brexit is a stupid project without an honest mandate that should be abandoned, or
  • Brexit, the “Will of the People”, is being sabotaged by undemocratic treasonous “Enemies of the People” and Brussels is being unreasonable.

There is very little middle ground.

This political climate is the reason why the current simplistic Stop Brexit or Exit from Brexit campaigns may only reverse the polarity of the current situation. Without an overwhelming majority (either way), the question will be not be resolved. Perhaps it is unresolvable. (If that really is the case perhaps it might be a good idea to actively plan for some form of Partition of the United Kingdom along the Brexit fault line.)

It is unrealistic at the moment to expect an overwhelming People’s Vote to abandon Brexit. To achieve this three steps are necessary:

  1. A Parliamentary majority for a “People’s Vote”  or “Final Say”. Given the abdication of Labour from its role of opposition and the habit that Tory “rebels” have of folding at the last moment a vote for “the people” to have another say is unlikely. The electoral system also makes it very difficult to “punish” MPs who do respect any movement demanding a “People’s Vote” – as long as they keep their selection committees on side they are safe.
  2. The “People’s Vote” has to include the right options – which have to be adequately defined.
    • If forced into having a vote, the Brexiteers will want a vote between “Deal” and “No Deal”. This is a Hobson’s choice between a vaguely understood deal cobbled together by the EU and David Davis and the relative unknown of a Hard Brexit with no deal, just assurances from Jacob Rees-Mogg that this will be best for the country and we should ignore the siren calls of Brussels predicting all sorts of problems.
    • Remainers probably want a vote between “Deal” and “No Brexit” – assuming that the legal status of possibly reversing Article 50 can be resolved.
    • Parliament however may try and introduce a “Continue Negotiation” option – they may even try and muddy the waters by having a three or even four-way vote!
  3. A “People’s Vote” with a “No Brexit” option has to be won conclusively – which I would interpret as a margin of 2 or even 3 to 1.

 “No Brexit” – that is an abandonment of a discredited project – is probably a better term than “Remain” – an option that has previously lost.

Suppose a “No Brexit” vote is won by say a vote of 52% to 48%. Just abandoning Brexit and “going back to normal” is unlikely to solve the divisions in the country. Those proposing “No Brexit” have to come up with a plan (before the vote) to cope with the impact of a narrow victory.

It is quite possible that a “No Brexit” result will be met by the Leavers with a mixture of shock, horror and accusations of manipulation – exactly how Remainers reacted to the original EU referendum. We may even find that implementing a “No Brexit” vote is not simple because it has not been adequately defined. We would be repeating Cameron’s major mistake.

It may be (relatively) easy to pass UK legislation to stop or undo the Brexit preparatory work and to negotiate a non-exit with the EU. But it would be unrealistic not to expect a rearguard action by the Brexiteers in Parliament as they try to “obstruct the [new] Will of The People”. A probable snap General Election may not clear out these Brexiteers; nor may it give us a stable government capable of implementing an “Exit from Brexit”.

In addition given the current turmoil in the EU it is possible that one (or more) member states may block a revocation of Article 50 to try to either gain national advantage or to “punish” the UK for messing them about by trying to revoke some of the UK’s opt outs or even its budget rebate.

Is it possible in the compressed timescales we face for all parties to agree what a “No Brexit” vote means – before the question is put?

Hardly a recipe for “Peace in Our Time”. Therefore any second vote should only be called if there are genuine grounds for expecting an overwhelming majority and the consequences of both options are fully defined.

To get an overwhelming vote it is not just necessary to get “swing” voters to change their vote – there are not enough of them. It is therefore necessary to get “core” Leave voters to switch.

Yet the “core” support of both sides seems remarkably entrenched and robust. The poisonous nature of political debate since the referendum has driven supporters of both sides into more entrenched positions. To switch sides (in either direction) they have to accept that their position is wrong and that they have been misled. If due to the nasty state of British politics they have previously taken up a public position this is not easy.

Any second vote has to happen between October 2018 and March 2019. There seem to be few arguments emerging that are powerful enough to sway entrenched opinion, despite evidence relating to the reliability of the referendum, the complexity of leaving, and growing concerns expressed by industry.

The most powerful “swaying argument” is “We have had a referendum; the question is decided and it is undemocratic not to support the majority [no matter how small]”. This argument appears to have moved a number of Remain supporters into the “let them get on with it” camp or even completely into the Leave camp. There is also a natural tendency to want to be with the winning side and this argument supports that desire.

There do not yet seem to be equally powerful arguments to sway people from Leave to Remain. And time is short.

There is a growing amount of evidence that the referendum was not “clean” – including:

Yet this evidence shows no sign of being marshalled into an argument to undermine the legitimacy of the result.

Likewise the chaotic state of the negotiations driven by the emerging complexity of leaving in a controlled manner does not seem to support widespread questioning of what type of Brexit we voted for. It is becoming rapidly apparent that neither side (UK Government or EU) have really got their minds around the full scope of what has to be decided. A few of the questions that are not yet nailed down after two years, with a few months to go include:

  • The settling of our “bar tab”.
  • The position of EU27 citizens in post Brexit UK, and of UK citizens in the post Brexit EU.
  • The Northern Irish Border.
  • Ensuring that complex cross-border just-in-time supply chains can continue to operate in a frictionless manner.
  • The need for extra staff and infrastructure to control border points once we have “taken back control”. (We are rapidly getting to the stage where there is not enough time to put these in place.)
  • The need for seasonal agricultural labour to harvest crops.
  • The need for health and social care staff to plug long-term shortages.
  • The difficulty of keeping the EU arrest warrant system when we will no longer acknowledge the jurisdiction of the ECJ (The European Court of Justice – which ultimately ensures these warrants are not abused).
  • The UK becoming an outside third country no longer able to be a full member of various EU projects like Galileo.
  • The incompatibility of Theresa May’s red lines with EU rules. Quite rightly the EU seems to be saying that you cannot have the benefits without following the rules and contributing towards the costs. For the EU to concede these points would be like any member organisation (rugby club, the National Trust, etc.) saying that an outsider can have all the benefits of membership without being a contributing member; it would totally undermine any reason for anyone to be a member – which would lead to the collapse of the organisation (which may be desired by Rees-Mogg’s ERG, but is not desired by the EU27)

One response to these “impossibility” problems is to “just leave”. This is bound to be not as simple as those two words might indicate. We would accept a degree of chaos in our dealings with the EU and at our borders with the EU.  This is the ultimate hard Brexit desired by the more rabid Euroseptics, but the argument that this is not the sort of Brexit that 52% voted for is just not gaining traction. Strangely the argument that “not leaving” may be better than a chaotic departure is barely heard – possibly because it is not yet understood how chaotic a no deal departure could be.

Growing numbers of trade organisations (CBI, SMMT, etc.) and major employers such as (in the last fortnight alone) Airbus and BMW have highlighted their concerns about the uncertainty surrounding future trade with the EU and the lack of time to take mitigating actions. Problems include:

  • Disruption to supply chains at ports as parts have to clear customs and negotiate the added congestion that is inevitably when you move from a free-flowing border to a controlled border.¹
  • Disruption to multi-national teams that can no longer travel as freely between sites (whether they are company sites or supplier sites).²
  • Possible regulatory divergence meaning that different countries have different standards.³

These seem to be disregarded (or not understood) by the electorate – even by some of the employees of the employers concerned.

The lack of “killer” arguments for a substantial rejection of Brexit despite the above evidence means that at best any rejection may be by a wafer thin majority. This will not avoid continued divisions.

A key question that has to be asked is why have these arguments not been formed, promoted or supported at sufficient volume to break through?

Lack of leadership is one rather obvious answer.

  • Within the Tory Party the rebels seem to lack spine and are possibly more concerned about their selection committees than the country.
  • Within the Labour Party potential rebels seem to be worried about de-selection and the official leadership seems to be unable to formulate a consistent and coherent strategy for opposition to anything let alone Brexit.
  • The Liberal Party are still recovering from the damage to their reputation caused by their actions during the coalition. The damage may not be (fully) deserved but it is real and means that they cannot offer national leadership.
  • The Northern Irish Parties also lack traction in Great Britain or are pro-Leave.
  • Plaid Cymru is hampered by the fact that Wales voted to Leave and they may be fearful that opposing Brexit will drive their support towards a Labour party that is sufficiently ambiguous on Brexit to not require new supporters to feel they are making too great a political switch. They also have little public influence outside Wales.
  • The Scottish National Party is also restricted in public influence to Scotland and is also pre-occupied with a possible second Independence Referendum – which may not endear them to English Remain supporters – despite their strong Remain stance.
  • So step up Caroline Lucas!

An alternative source of leadership is of course outside Parliament, but strong (and constant) parliamentary support is necessary and a hostile press has to be overcome. Extra-parliamentary leadership is also subject to the accusation of being undemocratic.

The other main reason that the arguments are not being heard is the media. Much of the mainstream print media is owned by people who either support Leave or see taking a Leave stance as in the interests of their circulation. The broadcast media is not much better; it seems to accept Brexit as a “done deal” and consequently do not rigorously examine either the work of the negotiators or possible alternatives if the Brexit process should unravel – they appear blind to the fact that it is. When non Leave supporters do get any coverage their message is fragmented and uncoordinated – a function of lack of leadership.

I find that conclusion intensely depressing. It looks as if we will have a form of chaotic Brexit that few actually voted for or we may have a people’s vote that may give a narrow “No Brexit” result. I cannot see that solving the country’s divisions; but I can see it leading to a renewed fractious membership of the EU that will probably lead to yet another In/Out referendum a few years down the line. Perhaps then it will be third time lucky and both options will be fully defined which may lead to a conclusive vote one way or another.

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One thought on “What if: Stop Brexit or Exit from Brexit

  1. In the New Statesman on 27 June 2018, Paul Mason writes (Ukip’s turn to the alt-right is a warning sign – we need to fight back) about how UKIP is evolving into part of a nastier extreme right coalition, prepared to mobilise against a “Brexit Betrayal”.

    If there is a second referendum, the concessions already made by Theresa May mean that a hard, no-deal Brexit is already off the ballot paper. The choice would effectively be between accepting what May negotiates and staying in. The political forces of xenophobia and racism in Britain will at this point be supercharged.

    … the far right will have a real cause celebre, to underpin all its obsessions, prejudices and conspiracies: Brexit will fail.

    It will fail in the very terms the Mail and Sun have stoked up among the plebeian base of right-wing conservatism: Britain will remain aligned to the EU regulatory superpower only with reduced influence on it. It will not be “free” of Europe; it will have been subjected to a stinging diplomatic and reputational defeat.

    If we are to have a successful “No-Brexit” vote the reversing of the polarisation of Britain may be more dangerous than many may think (possibly myself included). What is to be the political (and security) response to an angry mobilisation of the nasty right crying “Betrayal!”

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