/Brexit Radicals

Brexit Radicals

The UK is in an odd period of stasis as the Brexit storm looms, a seeming dim echo of the summer of 1914. From HistoryJournal:

The summer before the war, the summer of 1914, was memorable for its picnic-perfect weather. During these warm summer months, Europe (especially Britain, which hadn’t really seen war for a hundred years) breathed the air of chivalry, romanticism, and boundless self-confidence for the last time. The shock of the war to come contrasted so sharply with the idyllic season before it (Fussell describes at length in the first chapter how this dichotomy created a sharp and enduring impression of the irony of life on the Western psyche), that “the summer of 1914” would for many decades become synonymous with astonishing naiveness.

The Great War wasn’t simply a conflagration that killed millions of combatants and civilians including many young British and continental aristocrat who had enlisted to get bragging rights for taking part in what they expected to be a short conflict. It was also the end of an era.

If the Tories move Brexit from indeterminism to consummation, it will represent the end of an era for the UK and may have much broader ramifications. But the repercussions likely depend on choices yet to be made.

Absent a remarkable turn of fortune, Boris Johnson will become Tory party leader. Both Johnson and his fellow candidate Jeremy Hunt have sworn fealty to delivering Brexit on October 31 or at the very worst, a short period of time thereafter.

As we’ll discuss, plenty of influential parties, including some Tory MPs, oppose a crash-out (which is the only type of Brexit that can happen on a tight timetable, given the antipathy to the Withdrawal Agreement that is the only deal with the EU on offer). But as May’s astonishingly long survival showed, a Prime Minister wields considerable power, most importantly over the Parliamentary timetable. It is hard to see how pro-Remain and less rabid Brexiteers could wrest the steering wheel from the new Prime Minister to change the current trajectory.

Hunt, who had been trying to sound more reasonable and better prepared than Johnson (a low bar), has now become sanguinary:

This is consistent with the UK being on a path to a crashout; the only open question seems to be the timing.

Ian Dunt’s assessment of Hunt at politics.co.uk is too delicious not to pass along:

Hunt simply has no qualities to recommend him. Presentationally he is extremely drab, a politician in the form of a brown carpet. He always looks slightly frightened. No-one has ever been inspired, or amused, or even outraged by him.

His politics, if indeed he has any, are all over the place. He seems like a fairly pleasant nice-but-dim figure, and tries to overcompensate for this by aiming too fiercely for what he presumes is a Tory comfort zone.

Admittedly, Johnson is so famously devoid of scruples that he could conceivably make a wild reversal once he becomes Prime Minister. But he has been a vociferous Euroskeptic for so long, and the Conservative party members are on the whole such fervent believers in the Brexit cause that it is hard to see how he could make a dramatic course change.

On top of that, the Tories feel the hot breath of the Brexit Party on their necks. One school of thought is that Johnson would call a general election both to take advantage of Labour’s current weakness and buy some time with Brexit. But it’s not hard to see that during the campaign, Farage would charge Tory leaders with putting party interests over their promise to deliver Brexit. Readers have argued that Johnson could offer Farage some seats (by having the Tories not contest them) in return for being a coalition partner.

But be careful what you wish for; look at how the DUP flexed its newly-found muscles. Farage, who has been salivating to play on a bigger political stage, would be even more keen to be seen as shaping the course of events. There’s been an uproar at the Brexit Party’s adoption of fascist imagery in a rally in Birmingham a few days ago. From the Mirror’s Internet flummoxed by ‘Nigel Farage’ rave at Brexit Party rally:

Nigel Farage held a Brexit Party ‘rave’ complete with glow sticks and air raid sirens….

Those in the hall seemed to be having a great time but the response from those looking on was one of confusion.

Many made comparisons with World War Two and some even compared the mass rally to Fascists.

Dave Saul tweeted: “A Blitz themed club night for pensioners born after the war, DJ’d by an Oswald Moseley pastiche.”

Tom Scott, a Green Party candidate for the European Elections, tweeted: “Ever wondered what a cross between a Barry Manilow gig & a Nuremberg rally might look like? Well, you need wonder no longer, thanks to Nigel Farage and the Brexit Party.”

Oswald Mosley led the British Union of Fascists.

But May greatly overestimated the strength of her position when she called a general election; despite having a loyal fanbase, Johnson is also loathed, particularly by other MPs.

So another school of thought has been that a handful of Tory rebels would stage a vote of no confidence in Johnson and succeed in fomenting a general election. But this approach is looking less likely as various “Parliament taking back control” gambits are failing. From Reuters:

A group of pro-European Union lawmakers failed on Monday in their latest bid to prevent Britain leaving the bloc without an exit deal, after parliament’s speaker did not choose their proposal to be put to a vote….

Former Conservative Attorney General Dominic Grieve and former Labour Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett had tabled an amendment to routine finance legislation, dubbed estimates, aimed at cutting off some of the government’s funding if May’s successor pursued a no-deal Brexit against parliament’s will….

It was the latest attempt by lawmakers to try to prevent Britain leaving the EU without a deal. Last month lawmakers defeated an attempt by Labour to try to seize control of the parliamentary agenda from the government in order to introduce legislation aimed at blocking a no deal exit.

This failure does not augur well for Brexit foes:

Nevertheless, because the Tory party member radicalism is unrepresentative of the UK public generally, more study is being given to how to derail an incoming PM’s course to a no deal. Frankly, I am more persuaded by the Institute of Government’s May article, A new prime minister intent on no deal Brexit can’t be stopped by MPs, than I am by a new piece by The Constitution Unit, Six constitutional questions raised by the election of the new Conservative leader. Perhaps it is the result of seeing too many wildly divergent interpretations of constitutional law in the US when we have a written constitution.

Nevertheless, this analysis includes a discussion of whether the new Tory party leader could be prevented from becoming Prime Minister as a result of doubt over his commanding a majority in Commons:

If there is serious doubt about the new Prime Minister commanding parliamentary confidence the Queen might make a provisional appointment, conditional on the new PM demonstrating confidence. Alternatively, Theresa May could remain in place and facilitate a process in parliament to demonstrate that the winning candidate – or indeed an alternative candidate – can win a confidence vote, before recommending that person to the Queen.

Now it is easy for me as a Yank, not understanding the subtleties of UK power dynamics at critical junctures, to pooh pooh the idea of the Queen playing an influential role. The precedent they cite of the Queen intervening is from 1963. The Crown is much respected and influential now. For instance, the Fixed Term Parliaments Act reduced the role of the sovereign, and the Sovereign Grant Act 2011 consolidated the main sources of income to the crown and increased transparency. Per Wikipedia: “Funding to the Royal Household is treated similarly to funding for other government departments, unlike previous Civil List payments.”

The Constitution Unit piece does lay out how little working time there is between the announcement of a new Tory party leader and the October 31 date:

The House recently agreed a government motion that it should rise on Thursday 25 July and return for the September sittings on 3 September. The deadline for postal votes in the Conservative leadership election is Monday 22 July, with the result expected on Tuesday 23 July. It has been suggested that Theresa May might face her last PMQs on Wednesday 24 July, before resigning as Prime Minister. That would leave just one day for the new Prime Minister to meet the Commons and establish whether he can command its confidence. Should questions about confidence among Conservative MPs precipitate the kind of delay suggested above, parliamentary time for this test would soon run out….

The expected route to a vote of no confidence would be a formal motion tabled by the Leader of the Opposition, which by convention is guaranteed parliamentary time – usually there is a two-day debate before the vote. If instead the new government wished to positively demonstrate that it could command confidence, it would need time to set out its new Brexit strategy in detail to the House of Commons, before the summer break. A demonstration of MPs’ support for that strategy would clearly be valuable before re-entering negotiations with the EU. Without time for one or another of these processes to take place before parliament disperses for the summer there could be loud claims (however unfounded) that the new PM does not in fact command parliamentary confidence, and that parliament has been silenced.

The authors opine that Commons would therefore remain in session after July 25. That looks optimistic. The article sets forth other timing options:

Conservative MPs desperate to go away on holiday may well give the new Prime Minister the benefit of the doubt in July, and prove reluctant to precipitate an early crisis. But if by September it becomes clear that the new PM is heading for an October ‘no deal’ exit, MPs have few procedural devices to prevent that from happening. Some Conservatives have clearly indicated that they would be willing to vote down the government in this case. But the timing would be very tight – which again points to likely requests for a summer recall.

Parliament is currently due to return for a fortnight on 3 September, and then expected to adjourn again for the party conferences until around 9 October. The September sitting would no doubt hear a statement from the new PM about his progress in renegotiating Brexit, and the likelihood of reaching a deal. It could be difficult for MPs to vote down the government so long as a renegotiated deal appears realistic.

Um, anyone who has been paying attention knows a “renegotiated deal” as in Withdrawal Agreement, isn’t happening, save at most at the margins, like changing the dates of the transition period. But a new Prime Minister will bray that a new deal is nigh, particularly before and during certain-to-be-futile meetings with key EU figures when the UK press will be all too willing to amplify that message.

And on top of that, it doesn’t appear that the anti-Brexit (or at least anti-Tory) forces are willing to play nicely with each other in the event of a General Election:

Finally, what about Ireland, which is likely to become road kill in the event of a crash out? It should have occurred to me that the EU anticipates that while the Republic may suffer considerable short-term disruption, and it and the EU will be sorely taxed to come up with emergency measures to keep Northern Ireland from acting as point of entry for all sorts of non-EU compliant goods, the EU officialdom may have gamed out that the UK will swallow the backstop in less than a year and thus the damage to the Republic will be limited.

Why? As Richard North has discussed at length, the various crash out “everything will be fine” claims, invoking magic talismans like “trading on WTO rules” or “relying onexisting legal frameworks” are non-starters. Chris Grey recaps how many experts have slayed another unicorn, GATT Article XXIV.

So in the event of a no-deal Brexit, the UK will soon be plagued with disorder, shortages, plant stoppages, and the prospect of large scale business failures and job losses. Finding a way to normalize trading with the EU will be of paramount importance. The EU has already committed to making the Irish backstop a core condition of any arrangement. We’ve reported on this before but we’ll turn the mike over to Grey:

Jean-Claude Juncker has said that the EU would not open trade talks with the UK after a no-deal Brexit unless the UK signed up to the main elements of the WA.

Michel Barnier has said the same thing in unequivocal terms: “if … the UK were to leave without a deal, let me be very, very clear. We would not discuss anything with the UK until there is an agreement for Ireland, for Northern Ireland, as well as for citizens’ rights and the financial settlement” (£). So has EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom….

So while Ireland will be hard hit in a no-deal Brexit, key EU leaders may be betting on the idea that its pain will be time-limited, which is more than one should assume for the UK.

In other words, it might be wise to assume the brace position come the fall.

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