How much of an electoral risk is the Government taking by threatening to break international law? There hasn’t, to my knowledge, been much published polling on the issue and I haven’t seen any qual either. I’m not sure how revealing any opinion research would be at this point, anyway. Not only is the issue highly complex, but the Government hasn’t communicated a settled position on its intentions – and, in turn, the issue has not been played out properly in the media or in Parliament.
The public have only seen complex snippets. It’s therefore extremely unlikely the Government’s threat to break international law will have had much of an impact on public opinion at all so far. This isn’t to say the issue isn’t important or won’t have an impact in time. But it’s much more useful to consider how opinion might change and what might change it. How might we anticipate this change? Six questions come to mind.
Will this just split down Leave-Remain lines? As we know from the 2019 election, most people are bored to death by never-ending negotiations to leave. As we also know, almost everything on the Brexit process splits down Leave-Remain lines. There’s almost no crossover, where Leavers take the side of Remainers on an issue and vice versa. The well has been poisoned; you just have to take the occasional peek at Twitter and see otherwise normal people spewing bile at each other over Brexit.
ConservativeHome has taken an unusual position here: it’s associated with Leave but has encouraged MPs to vote against the Government. How common will ConservativeHome’s position be? This is the crucial question. Until significant numbers of Leavers (particularly Conservative Leavers) come out and join ConservativeHome, it seems most likely that Leavers will tacitly back the Government. Public opinion would shift if more Leavers follow the Editor’s advice.
Will this just look like Brexit chaos? The entire Brexit negotiation process has been a massive fiasco. From the morning after the referendum, government on this has been a shambles. One of the reasons so many people wanted to ‘get Brexit done’ was because they wanted the chaos to go away. I wonder therefore whether many will just write this off as being just another cock-up. Government opponents will need to explain why this is a special case. At present, they haven’t yet been able to do this effectively, although the arrival of more senior Conservative politicians into the fray might change things somewhat.
Can the public ever be made to care about international law? International law is complex, of course. But my sense is that it can’t be simplified in the way those hostile to the Government’s threat are seeking to do. People like Blair and Major are talking about how Britain’s moral standing will be adversely affected and so on. While a reasonable point, there are two reasons this won’t work.
Firstly, because, Brexit partisans aside, and rightly or wrongly, most people still consider Britain to be a moral actor in the world; this alone won’t undermine that. Secondly, more importantly, because many believe other countries break international law all the time. That said, opinion would surely change if and when the public are confronted with the prospect of another country unilaterally changing a treaty they had agreed with us. (It’s also worth adding the straight reality that Tony Blair is hardly the best advocate for international law.)
What is the reputation of the law more generally? My very strong sense is that the English public have also lost respect for ‘the law’ more generally. They believe the law no longer reflects natural justice and, that word again, fairness. Respect for the law has been slowly eroding for many years now, but it has been eroding very quickly in recent years. Increasingly, people have not only heard stories about pathetically weak sentencing, but they’ve also heard, in their eyes, perfectly reasonable Government policy decisions being unpicked by the courts.
The Establishment Left has claimed this shift in opinion amounts to a swing against an independent judiciary and the beginnings of a march towards a more political legal system. It’s nothing so thought-through; rather, people think the law no longer reflects right and wrong and therefore the accusation levelled at Britain – as being a law breaker – simply doesn’t have the same power that it once might have done
What do the public think about the EU’s behaviour during negotiations? It would be an exaggeration to say the mass of the public have followed Brexit negotiations closely. But, to the extent they have, my sense is that they think the EU has behaved with hostility towards Britain.
Varadkar, Barnier and Juncker seemed to revel in Britain’s difficulties during negotiations. The pro-EU British media liked to praise these politicians for this, on the basis they were teaching about the reality of its new position. But it was always going to be pointlessly destructive because it stored up English resentment that, when the time came, the Government would be able to tap into – as it now might well do.
Will the public cut slack to the Government over Northern Ireland? It’s important to consider the merits of the Government’s stated case – or, rather, what the public will think of these merits.
At one level, the Government has a very strong argument: it’s perfectly reasonable to argue Northern Ireland, as much part of the UK as England, should not be treated differently. The problem, of course, is that the Government initially said it should be treated differently and that it had secured a winning agreement.
Will the public rally behind Northern Ireland if the Government makes a case that the agreement is having unintended consequences, or will they think Northern Ireland isn’t worth the bother? There’s no question that unionist sentiment has faded in recent times; not because of a surge in English nationalism, but because of a sense that Scotland, particularly, wants to go its own way. The UK doesn’t seem the country it did even 10 years ago. Will English Leavers think the Government should therefore dig in in the way it seems to be planning?
What does all this mean? My sense is that, on current trajectory, the Government’s opponents will not be able to make this an issue the public care about (Covid obviously towers above everything at the moment) in time. The only way this will change is if Conservative Leavers are mobilised en masse – and if perceived historical allies start to question this behaviour too, mostly from the US, but also Canada and Australia. As it stands, it’s mostly been anti-Brexit voices who have made the running on this issue, which, as I note above, makes it look like just another day in BrexitLand.