Sunday March 24th, 2019 – What the hell is going on with Brexit?

by timsyme

I predicted this. For real! Since the immediate aftermath of the referendum and ever since, I have predicted two things: that there would be a soft, largely symbolic Brexit and that it would all go down to the absolute last-minute wire. Soft Brexit remains at least possible and, as of today, we don’t know what Brexit will look like, when or even if it will happen. OK, I admit, my prophetic skills have not been proved flawless; I thought that some kind of bespoke soft-Brexit, the single-market and customs with some bells and whistles, would be actual government policy, forced through in the face of enormous Brexiter opposition in the name of sanity, compromise and the close result of the initial vote.  So I did not quite predict that we would be where we are now. But where exactly is that?

The Deal

It seems clear that the deal is dead, although like everything else associated with this government, it may simply shift into a fully zombified state, ready to awaken and stagger back to the fore in the final frames of this comedy horror administration. After two resounding parliamentary rejections, it seems like the deal would lose again, maybe by even more this time, if indeed the government brings it forward again.

The substance of this deal is largely irrelevant and much of the outrage against it is confected for political convenience. Labour oppose it for some substantive reasons to do with state-aid rules but, in reality, if they were in government the future relationship with the EU would like be significantly up for grabs. So Labour’s opposition is, quite rightly in my view, partisan in nature. Refusing to help a Tory government and trying to bring it down are much better bets than facilitating it, however good or bad the deal. Doing so would not only infuriate remainers also make it harder to convince leavers that Labour were much different to the Tories on this central issue – much like austerity, if you believe in Brexit, you may as well let the Tories do it, hating Europe is really more their thing these days.

The Tory right is opposed to the Brexit deal because they want no-deal and the disaster capitalist frenzy that they expect would follow. This actually is a substantive objection, but it cannot be voiced in these terms for political reasons, so the Brexit ultras bluster instead about national liberation and the fantasy that the Northern Irish backstop is a trap. Maybe the EU would use it this way, to effectively stop Britain leaving the customs union when it wants, but they probably would neither want nor need the aggro of having Britain hang around in this semi-detached status for too long.

These big-picture problems for the deal were exacerbated by May’s statement last week abusing MPs for failure to do as she wishes. This seems to have put the brakes on any further defections in her favour among Tory MPs, on top of her dismal failure to effectively court Labour leavers to her cause.

However, there is conceivable a scenario where the deal returns from the dead, whether for a fourth vote or a delayed third go. One reason this might happen is that the DUP may come around at the very very last gasp. For one thing, they want Brexit and ideally one that is not disastrous for the Northern Irish economy or favourable to the cause of Irish unification, as no-deal might well be. In addition, the DUP has spent almost its entire existence closely involved in an actual war, an extremely delicate peace-process and then an uneasy coalition with the people they had been trying to variously oppress or kill. This means that they have a kind of muscle memory for tense negotiations and know the value of outright refusal as a way of gaining last minute concessions.

 If this government and Prime Minister last until April 12th, with no deal, the  cancelation of Brexit or a further long delay looming, we could well see a volte face by the DUP. The same goes for the Tory right and Tory MPs more generally; May’s deal may suddenly look better in the early hours of 11th March, with a cliff-edge they can’t avoid staring them in the face. For this to happen, however, this administration would need to survive and fight off a rebellion by the House of Commons.

The Government

I have also been predicting Theresa May’s resignation since the election in 2017. She is still there and after winning a Tory confidence vote late last year, is inoculated from formal defenestration for another nine months.

The Tory party however used to get rid of leaders informally, by way of a group of senior ‘men in grey suits’ explaining that the leader had lost the support of the (parliamentary) party and thus had to go. This is an essentially opaque mechanism so it’s hard to judge whether it would work. But May’s messianic intractability gives some reason to think she would resist any such informal methods and simply refuse to budge.

This leaves Tory MPs with only the nuclear option of voting with Labour in another confidence motion against the entire government, not just May as Tory leader. Again, this becomes more likely if no-deal looms and only needs a small number of Tory’s to turn, especially if the DUP themselves go for it or abstain, which I honestly have no idea of the chances of. It is likely that any Tory MPs who vote down their own government would be persona-non-grata in Tory circles, especially if this leads to a general election and a Labour victory.

However, it is also conceivable that some kind of cross-party, soft-Brexit coalition government could be put together after such a confidence vote, presumably under the leadership of a Tory remainer, and charged primarily with delaying and softening Brexit. It is hard to see how this could work, however, without the presumably dozens of rightwing Tory MPs who would refuse to join it and the likelihood that only a tiny number of Labour MPs would take part in such a project. Even on the Labour right, anti-Tory tribalism is strong, and few would be willing to soil themselves by propping up a Tory government.

Part of the obscurity here is that the highly annoying fixed-term parliaments act has never been used before. It specifies a nebulous two week period after a lost confidence vote where a new government can be formed. It is unclear whether the just-defeated Prime Minister would be allowed to have a go at doing so, if they would be expected to step aside immediately for a care-taker, or if the opposition would get to try first.

Labour

Another important unknown with respect to such a unity administration is the risk of a further, larger split in the Labour Party. If the leadership pushes ahead with a pro-(soft) Brexit policy and keeps hedging on a second referendum, it is conceivable that a large chunk of Labour MPs could break away, perhaps to join the Independent Group, and potentially be willing administrations in a government led by, say, Amber Rudd.

This is again unlikely insofar as the political prospects for these MPs would not be bright outside of the helpful Labour brand. There seems little chance that Corbyn will go voluntarily or that he can be forced out, so these Labour MPs would have no choice but to try to build something outside of the party, which would likely prove electorally impossible and certainly very risky.

More generally, Corbyn has got a lot of criticism for his approach to Brexit. Much of this is driven by broader animus to the leftwing takeover of the Labour Party and some of it by principled concerns about Corbyn’s own scepticism towards the EU, the substantive merits of which I shall not discuss here.

Fair-minded observers, however, are aware that Labour finds itself in a politically almost impossible position. If the leadership came out strongly for revocation or a second referendum, this would also likely be met with significant shadow-ministerial resignations and a substantial backbench revolt against. It would also hand the Tories, UKIP and others on the right an extremely nasty weapon with which to attack Labour in leave-voting areas, potentially making it impossible for the party to win the next election, whenever that its. 

Labour also faces some political risks in remain-voting areas but here it benefits from the fact that the right parties will certainly suffer more and that alternative, centrist parties do not currently seem to pose a threat. It is conceivable that the Lib Dems or the Independent Group could break through in some places, and potentially win a few seats, maybe enough to neuter a Corbyn government. This threat is arguably lesser than that in leave areas, simply because the strength of the UKIP/Tory/Brexit message has been repeatedly demonstrated in these places over the last five years, whereas the Lib Dems have not benefitted much at all from their staunch anti-Brexit stance.

Labour’s main advantages right now are that it is not the farcically imploding Tory Party, that Brexit is not plausibly really its fault, that it has a large, young and (still) enthusiastic membership and, most importantly, that the country is falling apart in material terms, not just the symbolic-political splintering of Brexit. This is why Labour would prefer to talk and would certainly campaign about everything except Brexit. Anyone who ventures out of the moneyed-zones of London and surrounds will rapidly and immediately note the visible disintegration of much of provincial Britain. Anyone who lives there or knows much about it can explain that these visible signs of decline, the bleak high streets, are more than matched by the multiple crises instigated by a decade of austerity

The Tories

The Tory part is probably one of the most successful political organisations ever. It has navigated and largely steered industrialisation, Empire, de-industrialisation and de-colonisation and has not seriously split in almost two centuries. While undoubtedly always a bunch of evil bastards, it has always had enough flexibility and pragmatism to ride the waves of history and maintain its position of dominance in British politics.

It has been split over Europe for many decades, presumably because of a conflict between the interests of different strands of British capital. One, pro-European, that benefits enough from expanded markets to be willing to swallow the increased regulatory burden and the other that would prefer to sell off the welfare state and most social, environmental and labour protections. Presumably this would be pretty profitable for some and thus motivates the anti-European side, with no-deal Brexit as the prize beyond their wildest dreams.

The most exciting thing about the current crisis is the possibility that it will be fatal to this stubborn institutional malignancy, this collective of sneering poshos and ‘self-made’ fuckwits pissing in the face of the British people. In my wildest dreams, the ERG would actually resign the whip en masse and form or join a hard right party, probably with Farage. Even without this, which is fairly unlikely, the hope has to be that the Tories will be out of power for a generation, simply on the basis of epic incompetence they have demonstrated over Brexit, from Cameron’s cunning referendum plan all the way up to May’s current state of permanent calamity.

It probably had to be this way. May did not have a big majority to play with in 2016 and so for good reason tried to expand it. If she had done so, she might have been willing and able to confront the Brexit crazies, do a soft but still loudly racist Brexit, maybe with some embarrassing Labour support too, just for fun. She and the party could then have been in a very strong position going into a post-Brexit election. Without a large majority, this was impossible, the Brexit ultras would simply not have tolerated a soft-Brexit policy.

There are certainly a lot of things May could have done much much better, but rather like Corbyn, in some ways she had little political choice but to be all things to all people for as long as possible and hope that something turned up, like Labour coming out in favour of a second referendum or the EU somehow caving on the Irish border. Now that crunch time has arrived without anything turning up to save them, May and the Tories seem doomed to death or long term defeat.

The Country

Many people seem convinced that our political class have betrayed the nation, that the politically motivated positions I’ve sketched above reflect a disgraceful prioritisation of party over country. This kind of critique is found very strongly among remainers, aimed more or less equally at both May and Corbyn. It is also prominent among leavers complaining about the betrayal of the vote. As this suggests, and as I’ve discussed above, the situation is far from being this simple. The vote was close and not for any kind of Brexit specifically and the parliamentary arithmetic makes governing virtually impossible on this or any other controversial issue.

I won’t bore you with repetitive speculation about the ‘causes’ of the original Brexit vote, except to note that the simple desire to fuck with politicians surely played a role. This desire has surely not gone away – little has changed to make British politics much more functionally representative of the interests of the people – and would quite plausibly re-emerge in force were a second referendum to happen. Most people don’t care about any of the details of politics and so won’t care about or even know about the practical challenges and material costs Brexit brings. And of course some do know and think that any such costs are worth paying for liberation from the Brussels yoke. So if they are asked again if they would like to do something that really pisses off most politicians and other powers that be, there is every chance a lot will say yes, fuck you again!

The big x-factor here is Corbynism and austerity. Whatever the polls say, the Tories are terrified of an election. Labour’s anti-austerity message and talk of fundamental restructuring of the economy represents the first material offer made to the de-industrialised provinces in forty years. It is likely to be more effective than the Tory offer of continued decline but with more racism to fill the void. If Labour can keep its shit together and get through this Brexit crisis, it stands a very good chance of winning with at least a respectable, manageable majority.

Constitutional Chaos

So where does all this leave us? With some wild drama ahead! I think that enough Tory MPs think that no-deal Brexit would be worse for the Party politically than them bringing down their own government. So I don’t think no-deal will happen. What is entirely possible is that the bodge-job that is the British constitution throws up some highly unpredictable confrontations between the government and MPs.

MPs could instruct May to pursue a different Brexit policy, say a long extension and soft-Brexit. But what if she refuses to do it? There are no clear mechanisms for parliament to direct the executive to act in a way it does not want to. The only alternative is to get rid of the government.

But if May loses a confidence vote with less than two weeks before April 12th i.e. after next Friday, might she simply stay on while everyone else scrambles to form a government and watch the clock tick down to no deal. How could she be stopped? It may not be possible.

The darkest timeline

So I still think that the most likely outcome is a delayed, then softened or even cancelled Brexit, under a different Prime Minister if not also a different government. But a truly dystopian scenario could also play out.

Let’s say May resigns and there is somehow time for a Tory leadership contest that is then won by Boris Johnson. He would likely win if he got through to the final two and the membership vote, so this could happen. Bojo then gleefully enacts a no-deal Brexit. Now I think that no-deal might not be as bad as some think, because of the possibility of a ‘shallow’ deal being done to prevent the instant crisis of closed borders. But maybe Bojo wouldn’t even want to do such a deal and would prefer to reap the whirlwind of a real crisis.

In the worst case scenario, this could look like a natural disaster, with fuel, food and medicine in suddenly short supply across one of the world’s richest countries. This could lead to serious social breakdown and would give a hard rightwing government the perfect excuse to put the army on the streets to maintain order.

Combine this with the rapid enactment of horribly aggressive anti-immigration policies and implicit rhetorical encouragement for neo-fascist street gangs to go out and ‘enforce’ these new rules as well as ‘protect’ scarce resources for the ‘native’ population. In addition, such a government would use the crisis as an excuse to rapidly sell of most of what is left of Britain’s public infrastructure, like the NHS, further exacerbating societal breakdown. You could then have multiple years of martial law, racist pogroms and even harsher austerity, potentially creating the conditions for an even fuller-blown crypto-fascist government to win an election in 2022. I think every part of that narrative is pretty unlikely, but it certainly cannot be ruled out.