/Brexit Dithering

Brexit Dithering

With the Tory Party leadership contest set to dominate British political news for the next few weeks, Brexit is going on hold. Not only does this mean no forward motion on the UK side (even if it were capable of that), but by the time the dust settles, with the Tory membership vote set to start on July 22, is when everyone who matters in the EU is about to go on holiday. So that leaves only two months to get anything done, charitably assuming the UK will prove capable of that.

I’m at risk of stepping way outside my realm of knowledge, since UK political machinations would seem to play into what happens with Brexit. But even with the LibDems now in the lead in polls, ahead of the Brexit Party, nothing of real import is likely to change unless some Tory MPs live up to their threat in the event of a Boris Johnson win and back a general election to prevent him from becoming Prime Minister. However, the “pull down the house” MPs are fewer in number than previously suspected, apparently only about 20. In theory, with the thin coalition majority, that would be enough defections to trigger a general election. But I assume the skepticism over the faltering revolt is that only a portion of that 20 are expected to follow through.

For the benefit of non-UK readers, the Tory leadership starts on June 7. Conservative Home helpfully sets forth the Parliamentary process for whittling down the list to two, who are then voted on by Tory Party members. “Members” as in dues-paying members. Their number is roughly 160,000, increased from the former estimate of 120,000 to 130,000 by recent sign-ups. They are much more gung-ho about Brexit than Tory voters generally. But they are managing the difficult feat of being even more clueless about Brexit than Theresa May.

Ian Dunt sums up how the contest is shaping up:

After all, this is basically a no-deal leadership fight. Those are the terms of purity that Nigel Farage’s success in the European elections imposed on the Conservative party….

We’re in a weird fantasy land of political commentary, in which the contest is fought over Brexit, but the subject itself is rarely mentioned. Each candidate insists they will deliver it and then get on to whatever they want to talk about – lowering taxes, more bobbies on the beat, One Nation Toryism, whatever. But of course it is all nonsense. Brexit will eat them up and swallow them whole, just as it did their predecessor. So it would be useful if journalists actually asked them what they intend to do about no-deal

Richard North has been doing the unpleasant duty of watching closely for what the contenders for party leadership have been saying about Brexit, and it’s mind-boggling. Some examples:

Andrea Leadsom maintains she can negotiate a “managed no-deal”. Barnier rejected mini-side deals a long time ago. Leadsom then asserts she can end run the European Commission and deal directly with heads of state. We know how well that worked for Theresa May.

Sajid Javid wants to renegotiate the backstop, apparently having missed that the extension stated, “this extension excludes any re-opening of the Withdrawal Agreement.”

Someone also needs to clue in Matt Hancock, who wants to revive another idea that the EU rejected and is inconsistent with the Withdrawal Agreement being the only deal on offer, that of putting a time limit on the backstop.

Boris Johnson, Ester McVey, and Dominic Raab are already pumping for a crashout. Michael Gove appears to be the only aspirant clearly positioning himself as a moderate and willing to seek a further extension. And Jeremy Hunt, who North deems to be “one of the more sensible Tory MPs,” is now running second to Johnson among MPs. However, Tory members look likely to have one or maybe even both candidates pumping for a crash out.

As North observed:

What is both frustrating and alarming about this is the ease with which supposedly serious politicians and large numbers have convinced themselves variously that either renegotiation of the Withdrawal Agreement is a serious proposition, or that a no-deal scenario can be embraced without significant damage to the nation.

But how does this sit with UK voters? As Chris Grey pointed out:

The most obvious is that, for all that Brexit Ultras wrap their no-deal preference in the threadbare cloth of 17.4 million voters, it wasn’t remotely what the Leave campaign promised Brexit would mean in the 2016 Referendum. Indeed, Vote Leave promised those voters (mendaciously, for it could never have happened) that negotiations would be completed before the UK even beganthe formal process of leaving. It’s inconceivable that a no-deal platform would have won in 2016, and it is a mark of how cowed many mainstream politicians have become that they would even countenance it as being the ‘will of the people’.

Certainly it is not justified by recent polling evidence, which suggests that no-deal is supported by 25% of the electorate – a bit less than support leaving with a deal (27%), and considerably less than support not leaving at all (41%). Even amongst those who voted for the Brexit Party in last week’s European elections, where support for no-deal is presumably highest, only 67% want it. It is emphatically not a popular policy.

This means that if the next Prime Minister does try to implement it next autumn – and if so it will be amid growing economic chaos as the October deadline approaches – there will be a huge problem of legitimacy.

Now admittedly The Express, in an article yesterday, begs to differ:

A new survey found 30 percent of respondents believe no deal would result in only short-term problems and few consequences, while 15 percent said they had “nothing to fear” about a hard Brexit. The change in public opinion comes less than three months after a YouGov poll found 46 percent of voters wanted MPs to vote down the prospect of a no deal Brexit – which they subsequently did. The recent ballot by Deltapoll for the Mail on Sunday also suggested Boris Johnson had won support from the public thanks to his “firm stance” on a no deal.

Nevertheless, assuming Grey has the better grip on the mood of the country, recall how long Theresa May’s legitimacy crisis took to play out. She managed to be on the rope since her monstrous snap election miscalculation, yet managed to retain her hold on power due to the limited means for getting rid of her thanks to the Fixed Term Parliaments Act and her refusal to adhere to notions of convention, as in she really should have resigned, say, after losing on her first Withdrawal Agreement vote or after being censured. Two months is barely enough time for a legitimacy crisis to get up a decent head of steam.

And that’s before getting to the fact that Parliament can’t stop a no deal Brexit. As the Institute for Government noted, there is no silver bullet that Parliament can use to kill a no deal Brexit; a PM determined to keep the option alive or actually achieve a crash-out could block them.

The problem for Parliament is the mechanisms it used last time to hobble May won’t work with Prime Minister willing to trigger a crash out:

Parliament’s most successful attempt to avoid no deal earlier this year was the ‘Cooper Bill’s’ requirement for the Government to seek a one-off extension to avoid no deal on 12 April. The route to this stemmed from a clause which MPs inserted into the EU Withdrawal Act 2018 – the legislation needed to repeal the 1972 European Communities Act and correct deficiencies in domestic law after Brexit.

The clause required the Prime Minister to seek parliamentary approval for her Brexit deal before it could be ratified. But if Parliament rejected the deal then MPs would be able to vote on a motion ‘considering’ the Prime Minister’s next steps. Crucially, before Christmas, MPs won the right to amend that motion – giving the Commons a chance to shape both the timetable and the content of the next steps. Through this process the Commons was able to take control briefly of the parliamentary timetable and pass the bill.

But if a new prime minister is set on no deal, then they have no need for further ‘meaningful votes’. That denies MPs an opportunity to vote to take control of the timetable again.

And the no deal provision in the EU Withdrawal Act 2018 – which would have required the Government to hold a vote in the Commons if no agreement had been reached with the EU by 21 January – has long expired.

What about the EU? Barnier has said the odds of a no-deal Brexit have increased. EU leaders have continued to say what they shouldn’t need to say yet again, that the Withdrawal Agreement won’t be renegotiated. Macron is playing up his “bad guy” role and is pushing for October 31 as the final Brexit deadline. From The Local:

I think this is the final, final deadline because I don’t want to have the new commission and this new executive to have to deal with this past issue,” Macron said….

Macron nonetheless suggested that EU leaders might be willing to grant more time in case of a promise for a new Brexit referendum or a willingness to negotiate “something totally new.”

“Until the very last minute, the only one in a position to stop Brexit is the UK government,” he said.

Awfully wishy-washy for a bad guy. But Macron’s waffling seems to reflect the weird quasi parental approach the EU has fallen into with respect to the UK. If the new prime minister wastes, say, six weeks of the roughly nine in September and October trying to bully the EU into renegotiating the Withdrawal Agreement and goes back to the UK and has hissy fits in the press, there probably won’t be enough time to change direction and sell the need for an extension so quickly on the heels of confidently saying the EU would capitulate. And that also pre-supposes the Prime Minister could come up with an adequately plausible reason for needing an extension, as in what it was proposing to do so as to get the UK to sign up for an orderly Brexit.

In other words, it would be difficult for anyone who becomes PM and didn’t campaign on an extension as an option to change course so rapidly…..even the fabulously erratic Boris Johnson. That in turn means the new PM could simply not seek an extension, or ask for one in such a way that the EU could not accommodate the request.

As Richard North recapped in a new post today:

Yesterday, I introduced the idea of the Tory Brexit dilemma. This is where the Conservative Party is doomed if its new leader doesn’t take us out of the EU by 31 October. But, since that will almost certainly require us to leave without a deal, the Party is also doomed if we do leave then

And the Tories will drag the rest of the UK along with them.

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