Argument

The Brexit Deal Won’t Destroy Britain

Theresa May’s proposed deal with the European Union won’t put Jeremy Corbyn in power, but it might cost the prime minister her job.

British Prime Minister Theresa May leaves 10 Downing Street in central London on November 16, 2018.
British Prime Minister Theresa May leaves 10 Downing Street in central London on November 16, 2018. (DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)

Brexit poses the most serious constitutional and political problems that Britain has had to face since the end of World War II. Nevertheless, the more lurid prophecies about its outcome can be discounted. Even if the deal to leave the European Union is rejected by Parliament, there will not be stockpiling of vital foods and medicines. There will not be 20-mile lines of trucks at Dover and Folkestone. Nor will the United Kingdom fall apart. Indeed, whether or not there is a deal, Brexit makes Scottish independence less, not more, likely.

A majority of voters in Scotland, like Northern Ireland, opted to remain in the European Union in the 2016 Brexit referendum. The Scottish nationalists say that an independent Scotland would seek to remain in the EU in the event that the U.K. leaves. But it would have to rejoin by invoking Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty, which lays down conditions of eligibility for joining the EU. If Brexit eventually leads, as is likely, to different regulations in Britain from those in the EU, then a Scotland in the EU would be confronted with serious non-tariff barriers with England, which is by far its largest market.

If Scotland sought to keep the pound, its monetary policy would be determined in London, not in Edinburgh. Furthermore, Scotland would probably not be granted its proportionate share of the U.K. budget rebate negotiated, with great difficulty, by then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1984.

An independent Scotland invoking Article 49 might, moreover, be legally required, as new member states are, to join the eurozone. If so, it would have to comply with the Maastricht budget criteria, which require member states to reduce their budget deficit to no more than 3 percent of GDP. Scotland’s current budget deficit is currently just under 8 percent of GDP. It would find itself in a similar position to those Mediterranean members of the eurozone, such as Greece and Spain, that have been required to implement drastic austerity policies, cutting public spending and raising taxes. If Scotland were to adopt similar policies, it would make Britain’s former austerity chancellor, George Osborne, look like Santa Claus.

Given these likely restrictions on Scotland’s monetary and fiscal policy, it is hardly surprising that Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the Scottish National Party, has not reiterated her call for a second referendum on independence.

Northern Ireland is also unlikely, whatever the outcome of negotiations with the EU, to leave the U.K. and seek to join with the Republic of Ireland. Under the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, Northern Ireland remains in the U.K. until a majority of its population signifies in a border poll that they wish to join with the republic. There is currently little evidence that they do.

Indeed, according to an Ipsos MORI poll in May, Irish unity post-Brexit is supported by just 21 percent of Northern Ireland’s electorate, and by a minority of the Catholic population. The preferred option for most members of the primarily Catholic nationalist community appears to be power-sharing within the province through a devolved assembly, rather than joining with the republic.

The effects on British politics will be serious and lasting. Europe has ruined five of the last six Conservative prime ministers—Harold Macmillan, Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher, John Major, and David Cameron. It could also ruin Theresa May, who is dependent for her majority on the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party and who faces growing rebellion within her own Conservative Party—opposition that could lead to a leadership challenge.

But both the Conservatives and the Labour opposition are deeply split on Brexit between so-called soft Brexiteers, who seek to replicate as much of the EU’s arrangements as they can in exchange for frictionless trade, and hard Brexiteers, who want to break entirely free from the EU. These two positions are sometimes summarized, rather crudely, as Norway (membership of the European Economic Area, which provides for membership of the EU’s internal market in exchange for accepting free movement and contributions to the EU budget) or Canada (which has a free trade agreement with the EU but is not a member of the customs union or internal market).

Adding further to May’s problems, there are a small number of Conservative members of Parliament and a larger number of Labour members who favor a second referendum to see whether there is still a majority in favor of leaving the EU. A so-called People’s Vote is also favored by a small third party, the Liberal Democrats, and the Scottish National Party.

Given this diversity of opinion and divisions with the governing party, there is bound to be some doubt as to whether the withdrawal agreement negotiated by the government can secure the necessary majority in the House of Commons. However, if the government were to be defeated in the Commons, it would not necessarily mean another general election.

In the past, if the government lost a vote on a major policy or item of legislation, the prime minister could obtain a dissolution of Parliament—and the threat of dissolution could be used to cow any dissidents. In 1993, when Prime Minister John Major was defeated in a vote on the Maastricht Treaty, he returned to the House of Commons the next day and declared it a matter of confidence. The dissidents backed down, and the Commons reversed its decision. Such a strategy, however, is no longer possible for the prime minister following passage of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act of 2011.

Under that act, an early dissolution is possible only under two conditions. Either there must be a two-thirds majority for it in the House of Commons, or the government must be defeated in a specific vote of confidence, with no alternative government able to win the confidence of the Commons within 14 days.

The first alternative is unlikely to occur. Conservative MPs voted for an election last year, together with the Labour opposition, at a time when they were 20 percent ahead in the polls. In that election, they lost their overall majority. Conservatives are much less popular now. They are unlikely to take such a gamble again and risk putting Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in power.

The second alternative requires a specific vote of confidence in the government as a whole. Such a vote can no longer be tacked on to a vote on another substantive issue as it was in 1993. It would take great courage, some would say foolhardiness, for Conservative backbenchers to vote against their own government or even to abstain on such a specific vote. But, of course, feelings on Europe are so strong and it is such a highly emotional issue that it could just happen.

If a no-confidence vote passed, the outcome would probably be not a general election, but an alternative Conservative Party leader able to win the necessary vote of confidence within 14 days. Only if that proves impossible would there be an election. It is therefore likely that the current Parliament will continue until the scheduled date of the next election, in May 2022.

Even if a government defeat on the deal does not lead to a general election, May would almost certainly have to resign, as she would have lost her authority. If she were unwilling to resign in these circumstances, Conservative backbenchers opposed to May’s leadership would probably trigger a vote of confidence in their party leader, the prime minister. They might well do that even before the deal comes before Parliament.

Such a confidence vote within the party requires 15 percent of Conservative backbenchers—currently 48 MPs—to write to the chairman of the Conservative backbench committee, known as the 1922 committee. If May wanted to continue in the face of such a challenge, she would have to submit herself to a vote of her MPs. In one way or another, a parliamentary defeat on the deal would almost certainly mean a new prime minister.

However, changing the occupant of No. 10 Downing St. would resolve little. The new prime minister would face exactly the same Commons coalition of incompatibles, and valuable negotiating time would have been lost. The nearer the March deadline for withdrawal from the EU, the weaker Britain’s negotiating position becomes.

It is clear that the European issue has had seismic consequences for British politics ever since, in 1950, Labour Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin warned against Britain joining the Council of Europe, predicting, that “If you open that Pandora’s Box, you never know what Trojan horses will jump out.” And there are many more Trojan horses ready to jump out.

Whatever the outcome, and even in the unlikely event of the United Kingdom crashing out of the EU without a deal, it will still remain one of the most stable democracies in the world. Britain’s constitutional and political structure remains solid, and its populist party, the UK Independence Party, has been gravely weakened and in disarray since fulfilling its raison d’être by winning the Brexit referendum in 2016. It is but a shadow of the nastier populist movements on the continent.

In 1777, following Gen. Burgoyne’s surrender to the Americans at Saratoga, a young British aristocrat said to Adam Smith, “If we go on at this rate, the nation must be ruined.”

“Be assured, my young friend,” Smith replied, “that there is a great deal of ruin in a nation.” Those wise words are well worth remembering amid the hullaballoo surrounding today’s Brexit negotiations.

Vernon Bogdanor is a professor of government at King’s College, London. His book Brexit and the Constitution will be published next year. In 2019, he will be giving the Stimson lecture at Yale University on the consequences of Brexit for Britain and the European Union.

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