In the long-running British soap opera that is Brexit, we have become accustomed to two regular developments: dramatic political reversals and confident predictions that the issue has now finally been settled (at least in prospect). Both were on display earlier today in London. The morning’s Daily Telegraph carried a scoop that Chancellor Philip Hammond, a dull but passionate Remainer, accompanied by four other senior ministers, had briefed business leaders to the effect that, following the defeat of the government, he would quietly assist other parties and Remainer Tories in Parliament to take a no-deal Brexit off the table. Only one minister dissented mildly, on the grounds that this would weaken the U.K.’s negotiating tactic in Brussels. That report led to a fiesta of speculation that “No Deal” was now dead and that the eventual deal would be a cosmetically revised version of May’s defeated deal, arranged between the government, other parties, and about 20 Remainer Ultras on the Tory benches.
As always on these occasions, the scoop and its accompanying speculation were immediately contradicted by official spokesmen, anonymous ministers, and MPs on the side of the form of Brexit discounted by the speculation. Andrea Leadsom, the leader of the House, quietly distanced herself from Hammond’s comments, and there were calls from Euroskeptic MPs that prime minister Theresa May should rein him in. That sounds like an entertaining daydream for Brexiteers with odd sexual tastes, but not the way May’s mind seems to be moving. Both the Telegraph scoop and the guesswork about a Brexit softer even than May’s first deal were given long legs by her decision to appoint Europhiliac deputy prime minister David Lidington as head of a three-person team to conduct negotiations on building a Brexit consensus with other parties.
That task faces several difficulties. One that should have been anticipated is that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, an old Bennite Euroskeptic, doesn’t seem very keen on helping the Tories out of their quandary. He wants the Tories to settle Brexit for him, ideally with disastrous effects on their unity and support in the country, so that he can move on to more congenial topics such as increasing government spending and imposing higher taxes on the few. But the central problem with Lidington’s task is that no consensus is possible between Brexiteers who want a “clean” or “full” Brexit and Remainers in all parties who hope to keep the U.K. inside the EU in light disguise. If such a deal were to be agreed, it would almost certainly break apart the broad consensus inside the Tory party between Brexiteers and moderate Leavers that there has to be some kind of Brexit worthy of the name.
A sharp dividing line between these two positions seems to be emerging: it is whether or not Britain would be outside or inside an EU customs union. Since the customs union is the main platform of the original Treaty of Rome, it’s hard to argue that you have left the EU if you’re still in an EU customs union, as Christopher Meyer, a distinguished former British ambassador to Washington, drily pointed out in a tweet. But the other parties are making such membership a concession from May almost as vital as the abandonment of No Deal if a cross-party consensus is to be reached. May herself, still discerning the faint image of her one last red line, seems reluctant to go along with it at this stage. Her spokesman said that any final arrangement must entail the U.K.’s ability to forge trade deals with non-EU countries — which a customs union would prevent.
How is the Lidington expedition likely to solve this conundrum? To answer that question, let us turn to the well-informed speculation of a clear-sighted moderate Leaver, Paul Goodman, the editor of the influential website Conservative Home, who earlier today suggested two possible roads down which it might go. First:
David Lidington will mastermind a negotiation with Labour Soft Brexiteers and others. Michael Gove will provide Eurosceptic cover, and make the case for what emerges on Today and in the Commons. The negotiation will settle on formal Customs Union membership, or something so close to it as to make no difference. In the passive way that so defines her, Theresa May will swallow it. Lidington will tell her that, if she doesn’t, she will lose a no confidence vote, with a tiny band of fixated Remainer Conservatives, perhaps led by Dominic Grieve, abstaining — and so making the difference.
Another way of viewing the possible three man negotiating team is that Gove would act as a restraint on Lidington, teaming up with Smith to block any move towards formal Customs Union membership.
Shall we toss a coin on which option will win out? Besides, how much would it matter?
Whichever route the intrepid Lidington takes, he will hand back the final decision to May. Past experience suggests that she will then add some convoluted version of customs-union membership to her earlier deal and offer it as a vital concession to Brussels while telling her MPs that the altered deal still meets her original red lines. What then? Would the EU remove the Northern Ireland backstop provision — the single most important reason for the massive defeat of her deal this week — on the grounds that it wouldn’t be needed in an EU-wide customs union? Almost certainly not. Tory and Democratic Unionist Party resistance to May’s deal would therefore continue on a scale that simply could not be overcome by crossover support from other parties. Even if the EU did withdraw the backstop, moreover, the Tory party would split badly over anything like customs-union membership, with more Cabinet resignations and (on recent experience) 120 votes against at the very least. If May were to proceed along that path, she would be leading a de facto cross-party coalition against perhaps half of her own party. That’s a way station in the logical progress of her policy for the last two years, but not its culmination. The culmination would be the breakup of both major parties in the Commons and (after a shaking of the kaleidoscope) their reintegration as new parliamentary parties of Remain and Leave.
It’s clear that the present political situation in the Commons has most of the raw materials — notably MPs uncomfortable in their existing party identities — needed for such a realignment. It’s a risky project, however, especially for the leading figures on all sides. Any new Remain party risks the Texan verdict of “All hat and no cattle”: The activists on the Left may be largely for Remain, but they’re also largely for Corbynite policies detested by moderate Labour MPs who expect to dominate the new parliamentary party. Any new Leave party, on the other hand, would have activists galore — about 75 percent of Tory activists are Leavers — but it would probably lack the bank accounts and formal organization of a party machine. Remain would have donors, Leave would have members. Getting from Labour vs. Tory to Leave vs. Remain could thus hardly avoid lawsuits for the party assets and perhaps party names too. And no one can know how it would all turn out. For all these reasons the short-to-medium term prospects are for delay — May postponing the end of Brexit while everyone keeps talking.
Remain MPs and pundits, largely supported by metropolitan opinion, repose their hopes in the idea that a Parliament itself would exploit this delay to take charge. An informal coalition of Tory Remainers and Opposition MPs would cooperate to push through the softest possible Brexit by a kind of guerrilla parliamentary theatre. It might then gradually evolve into Remain. That also seems to be the calculation of Remain ministers such as Hammond who hope that the present parties could stand back and survive intact under them while the informal Remain coalition, more or less overtly helped by speaker John Bercow, does their dirty work for them. As Hammond told the business leaders, the government would not obstruct the Remain guerrilla coalition. Indeed, it might even give them the occasional helpful wink when it came to taking No Deal off the table.
Nothing seems impossible in the current confusion, of course, but even these guerilla remainers underestimate the practical difficulties of the solutions they favor, and still more the tactics to achieve them. One such tactic was to attach amendments to all government bills forbidding government actions needed to implement a No Deal exit. But the counter-Hammond, Andrea Leadsom, responded cleverly by announcing that the government would not be bringing forward any such bills in coming weeks. Howzat!
Some in the guerrilla movement want to bring in a second referendum on Brexit. According to the Cabinet Office, however, it would take one year at least to prepare for a second referendum, which is unlikely to change the course of events when Brexit Day is March 29. Not incidentally, there is no agreement even among the Second Referendum Men about what the question would be — some want the choice limited to variations on Remain or to forget the whole idea. Taking a No Deal Brexit off the table may be their single most important objective, and that’s a very complicated operation. It would require new legislation to override the legislation passed only a year ago, and such a legal reversal would have to go through the full legislative process — First Reading, Second Reading, Committee Stage, House of Lords amendments, etc. — in which it would be strongly opposed line by line by some of the cleverest constitutional lawyers in the Commons. And if such legislation doesn’t pass in time and there is no agreement on some other exit deal with the EU, then a No Deal Brexit happens automatically. As some anonymous wit said this week: “You can’t take No Deal off the table. No Deal is the table.”
As you may have noticed, moreover, we have not yet begun to consider the roadblocks that the EU Commission or EU member states might throw up in the way of whatever bright ideas the parliamentary co-optimists can agree about — if they can agree, which is uncertain. When it is said that this is a Remain Parliament, that does not necessarily mean it will produce a Remain solution. There are at least five solutions on the table, and three of them are arguably Leave or semi-Leave proposals. Of these, the so-called Canada Plus proposal has perhaps the best chance of adoption because it is the solution that least divides the governing Tory party even if it doesn’t attract many Labour votes. But none of them may pass muster.
What we may be moving towards, therefore, is a situation in which a Parliament and government that cannot agree on how to handle Brexit give the problem back to the voters by calling a general election. Brexit would then be the single most important election issue (in a way that May failed to make it in 2017).
If that happens, it will be the moment when a great deal changes. Almost all of this column has been devoted to parliamentary minutiae, the calculations of senior politicians, and issues such as the Northern Ireland backstop that are little understood outside the political class and sometimes only worth understanding for the purpose of logical destruction. Such issues shrink in importance or are seen less technically and perhaps more clearly when they have to be discussed in clear terms with the electorate. The backstop was a device, jointly developed by the Irish prime minister, Leo Varadhkar, and the EU negotiator, Michel Barner, to bully the Brits into going along with EU tariffs and regulations for fear of being blamed for unsettling the Good Friday Agreement that doesn’t mention them. It’s hard to believe that ordinary voters would be hornswoggled so easily. They would at least ask skeptical questions.
In an election, the voters — who have been unobserved off-stage during recent parliamentary maneuvers — suddenly become central players. Not only do they have very different concerns, but they force those concerns onto the agenda. That happened in the 2016 referendum when the voters increasingly discounted the Project Fear campaign that warned of economic disasters and insisted instead on getting answers to the question of how Britain could “take back control” and restore its self-governing democracy. Remain never developed effective answers to the sovereignty question (and it still hasn’t done so) because it doesn’t really believe it’s a serious or important question. From the standpoint of the political class, the EU is a means of acquiring control and insulating itself from interference by the voters in, ahem, elections. Among other people the voters want to control, therefore, are the U.K.’s own politicians.
In any forthcoming election the “take back control” issue is likely to be augmented and intensified by the “Whatever happened to British democracy?” issue. It took less than 18 months for parliamentarians to forget that they had pledged to leave the single market, the customs union, and the jurisdiction of the ECJ, and to replace those policies with a variety of anti-Brexit attitudes. Annoyance at that will determine more votes than the Northern Ireland backstop. And there are other issues linked to Brexit in addition to sovereignty and democracy that might emerge in an election campaign — the fact that Britain has a distinctive tradition of ordered liberty that makes it uncomfortable in a bureaucratic continental polity; an Atlanticist outlook on defense that makes it the most enthusiastic member of NATO; the Anglo–American special relationship; other Anglosphere links with Australia, New Zealand, and Canada; a simple dislike of being told what to do by others, especially “officials”; and, in particular, a growing popular anger at the hostile and contemptuous remarks about Britain from European leaders that don’t seem to annoy or worry the political class. Such wider cultural and strategic issues, usually asleep, have been aroused by the controversies around Brexit and are likely to loom large in the minds of voters and accordingly still larger in the minds of ambitious politicians.
The voters see things more clearly now. So the nearer an election approaches, the more the vision of political leaders will improve too.