Henry Newman is Director of Open Europe.
There’s a stalemate: Government is paralysed; Westminster is drifting. With no hard deadline looming for months, MPs have little incentive to make decisions on Brexit. Meanwhile, an enormous question mark hangs over the Prime Minister’s future, with pressure from Tory activists and within the 1922 Committee of MPs.
Because of the Conservative failure to deliver Brexit, the Party is expected to take a serious beating in the European elections later next month. It’s notable that the sharp decline in the Conservatives’ poll rating correlates with their deferring Brexit. Support for the Government held strong despite its supposedly unpopular Brexit deal, but collapsed after Article 50 was stretched out to Halloween.
Many erstwhile Tory supporters are likely to register their anger with a vote for the new Brexit Party on 23rd May. Yet while their profound frustration may be understandable, a protest vote is hardly the basis of a way through or a policy plan for delivering Brexit. At the core of the Government’s Brexit nightmare is the lack of a clear majority for any path.
Now, approaching three years since the referendum, the exact same options are available as faced the country on 24th June 2016: leave with a deal, leave without a deal, or do not leave. That’s it. An unbelievable amount of time and energy has been wasted discussing all kinds of non-options, and avoiding actual issues.
The big picture is that 90 per cent of Conservative MPs ultimately backed the withdrawal deal on 29th March, including every Cabinet minister who had previously resigned over Brexit policy. And yet without the support of a final bloc of Tory MPs (on both the hard-Brexit and anti-Brexit wings) and with the DUP opposing, the deal still fell short. Thirty MPs need to switch for allow it to pass.
Some seem to have given up and argue that a change of leadership is now the only answer. But changing Prime Minister does nothing in itself to alter the actual Parliamentary maths. The ineluctable problem is that this Parliament will not support a No Deal, whoever is leading the Conservative Party.
No amount of ‘believing in Britain’ will solve the problem that a large number of Tory MPs, plus virtually every other MP in Parliament, would vote against No Deal in almost all circumstances. Several Conservatives have already made declared that they would choose to revoke Article 50 altogether rather than allow a No Deal. Even more admit the same in private. And ever since Parliament backed the Letwin Plan, backbenchers have the whip hand.
So any new leader wanting to pursue No Deal would need to go for a General Election, sooner rather than later, in order to secure the votes to overturn ‘Letwin’. It seems unlikely that a No Deal platform would allow a leader to win a majority, but even if it did, a slim victory wouldn’t cut it. My best guess is that the Conservatives would need a majority of at least 40, and ideally 60, to be able to ‘go for No Deal’.
The last time the Conservatives won a medium-sized majority on that scale was in 1987 – that’s over 30 years ago. The last time any party secured that sort of support was Labour in 2005, nearly 15 years back. So changing leader and pushing for No Deal is what was called a ‘brave’ strategy in Yes, Minister.
Others have convinced themselves that this Prime Minister has never really tried to get rid of the backstop. And so – they insist – a different leader could just go to Brussels and tell them we won’t have it, as if the silly Europeans hadn’t understood first time round. This is pure delusion. The EU has absolutely no incentive to move on the backstop now. As they see it, Brexit is slipping away: delayed, deferred (and soon) to die.
Meanwhile, there’s widespread anger that the Prime Minister opened talks with the Opposition earlier this month. I’m sure most Conservative ministers would rather do almost anything besides talking to the Labour leadership about Brexit. But in and of itself, cross-party discussions seem to me perfectly sensible. Vote Leave intended to approach the negotiations in such a manner from the start. And after losing her majority back in June 2017, the Prime Minister ought to have reached straight across the aisle.
Cross-party talks so far have neither borne fruit nor broken apart. They’ve just dripped onwards. In some respects, the most interesting thing is how much both sides evidently agree on. As long as Labour are committed to ending Free Movement, then the discussion is over a relatively small range of policy disagreement. Both parties are nominally committed to leaving both the EU and the Single Market, and the Labour Party now seem to be demanding something approaching a Chequers policy – albeit with a customs union added on top and some more harmonisation on worker and environmental rights.
Many Conservative MPs are passionately opposed to a customs union. I myself find it hard to see how a position where the UK was dependent on the EU for its trade policy could be sustainable in the long term, as Open Europe identified back in 2017. But it’s also true that until the UK develops the ‘alternate arrangements’ necessary to replace the backstop, we are likely to be in a customs union – or extended transition – for some time. And there’s no point arguing about whether we should or shouldn’t ultimately leave the customs union, if we can’t get out of the EU in the first place.
As we have seen elsewhere when it comes to Brexit, the argument over the customs union has a degree of unreality about it. Adding a customs union to the Political Declaration would not prevent a future Government (with a Commons majority) seeking to remove one. No more than, post-Brexit, a future administration could be blocked from – by negotiation – joining the Single Market, harmonising on services regulations, or indeed applying to rejoin the EU. But if the Government can’t find a way to get its Brexit deal through, and secure Brexit, all of this will count for nothing.
The stasis over the next few weeks may break soon. The Government may have another go at putting its Brexit deal to Parliament, perhaps by introducing the Withdrawal Bill after the local elections. Oliver Letwin has been surprisingly quiet but may seek to move more votes, or the Government may introduce its own version of indicative votes. A deadline looms, eventually – by September’s Labour Conference it seems inevitable that the party will be forced into an unequivocal position of backing a second referendum in all circumstances, something the leadership has so far avoided doing. Even then Brexit might not be totally lost, but with every week it slips ever further away.