No Brexit, No Exit From Brexit, and Nobody’s in Charge

The United Kingdom is in a mess of its own creation, and there's no way out.

Pro Brexit protesters demonstrate with placards outside the Houses of Parliament, Westminster on December 10, 2018 in London, England. (Jack Taylor/Getty Images)
Pro Brexit protesters demonstrate with placards outside the Houses of Parliament, Westminster on December 10, 2018 in London, England. (Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

The United Kingdom is in a deep hole and still digging. Last week’s chaos was the culmination of a long series of blunders. Today’s ruling by the European Union’s Court of Justice, that the UK can simply and unilaterally reverse its decision to leave, has only added to the sense of crisis  by opening up a clear route to remaining in the EU, even after all that’s happened. Then the government stumbled again, pulling a vote on a proposed deal at the last minute after realizing it was doomed to failure. Britain’s friends everywhere are left shaking their heads. How did a relatively stable and for the most part well-governed country completely lose its political bearings?

At the heart of any answer is a clash of mandates. The 2016 Brexit referendum instructed the government to extract the U.K. from the EU. So far, so simple. But this was the first time that a plebiscite had ever instructed the House of Commons to act against the deeply held beliefs of its members.

The two previous U.K.-wide referendums, via which the country decided to stay in the then-European Economic Community in 1975 and rejected the “alternative vote” ranked-choice voting system for Parliament in 2011, resulted in decisions that most members of parliament agreed with. The potential conflict of sovereignties—the question of the people versus Parliament—was sidelined in 2016. Now it has blown up in everyone’s faces.

At the same time, the political parties that usually keep MPs in line are utterly divided on what should come next, while neither voters nor politicians are particularly impressed by either leadership. The Conservatives and the Labour party alike are divided more among themselves than with their usual opponents, the government and the legislature from which it is drawn differ fundamentally, and there are enough variants of a possible deal to throw each camp—Leaver or Remainer—into disarray.

As things stand, Prime Minister Theresa May’s proposed deal with the EU pleases no one very much. It relies on a two- to four-year transition during which the U.K. will follow most EU rules, so as to allow time for a deep and close trade deal to be drawn up. But there are two very big provisos lurking in the deal: the backstop and the future.

The first sticking point for many members of parliament is the requirement that the U.K.’s land border with the Republic of Ireland has to be kept completely open under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement that brought an end to decades of pain in Northern Ireland: Both sides have promised never to build any sort of customs infrastructure there at all. That led to all parties agreeing on  the “backstop” in late 2017, an arrangement that means if there is no trade deal at all by the end of 2020 or 2022 will legally mean Northern Ireland continuing in some elements of the EU’s regulatory single market, and the U.K. as a whole continuing to adhere to the EU’s customs union governing physical trade. These legally enforceable pledges will prevent any new border in Ireland but constitute a straitjacket for future U.K. policy.

On top of that, the hardest negotiations are in the future—but under May’s deal, they have been corralled into a 26-page Political Declaration that mixes grand aspirations with almost deliberately opaque prose. Most experts argue that Parliament is being asked to vote on a deal that could actually lead to a whole range of possible end points for Britain’s service industries, and on more specific issues such as agricultural standards, intellectual property rights, security, and policing.

Selling this deal to a fractured and very finely balanced Parliament has proved almost impossible. The British government cannot simply sign treaties and expect them to be rubber-stamped if they are either controversial or necessitate large amounts of domestic legislation. Leaving the European Union involves both. Earlier this year, MPs considering the official Withdrawal Bill insisted that they be given a “meaningful vote” at the end of the process; since then, they have asserted their right to amend the government’s statement to Parliament on what they propose to do if they lose that vote.

This might still have been manageable if the government possessed a sizeable majority in the House of Commons. Unfortunately for May, her botched 2017 election campaign left her a few seats short of a majority at all, and she had to turn to Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party to see her through. Their commitment to the union between Northern Ireland and Great Britain means that they will never, ever accept a backstop that treats the former differently from the latter. The Republic of Ireland has no border controls with other EU states. The backstop blocks any between Northern Ireland and the republic. And the Democratic Unionist Party would block any between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. May’s own Leave-backing backbenchers are meanwhile furious that the U.K. as a whole might get stuck in the EU customs union.

May could reach across the aisle to Labour MPs, themselves divided over Brexit’s future. But here’s where the declaration’s vagueness is a critical weakness. There are more than enough Labour MPs who represent Leave constituencies, who sympathize with her attempt to compromise on Brexit, or who simply want the whole thing over and done with to save the prime minister from her own side. But most feel that this is not a soft enough Brexit for them—and once the U.K. has left, it will possess even less leverage over the process, so any promises made right now might mean nothing. Risking their careers for some warm words looks like a cold prospect.

The House of Commons could probably just about unite around a relatively soft Brexit—softer than May’s deal, certainly, and probably involving long-term membership of the single market for services as well as goods. This end point, currently known as “Norway Plus,” might well still be Britain’s final destination.

But the debate is becoming ever more polarized, with the high stakes forcing Leavers and Remainers away from the middle ground, where they might find at least some form of agreement. Leavers are busy demolishing what is left of May’s Withdrawal Agreement; more recently, Remainers have begun indicating that they will not settle for Norway Plus but will only ever accept a second referendum with remaining in the EU on the ballot.

There is no hope of a clean exit resolution now. If May does eventually push her agreement through, Britain faces at least two, and probably four, years of further complex debate that could bring the government back to its knees at any point. A general election also seems like an unattractive option. The British have become wearier and wearier of their febrile politics in the last few years. Most polling suggests that the result would be inconclusive and return a House of Commons that looks uncomfortably similar to the one sitting so uneasily in Westminster now. What, in any case, would be the point? Labour offers only an infinitesimally different version of May’s deal, mixed with a series of utterly unachievable fantasies such as a customs union with the EU under which the U.K. would have a say in external trade deals or a deal on Northern Ireland without a backstop. The party is of course spared by the convenience of being out of power from having to actually work for any of these unattainable goals.

Forget Parliament. What about the people? Suppose that Britain’s Euro-enthusiasts were to gain the right to hold—and then win—another referendum. A sizeable minority of the country, perhaps nearly half, would deeply resent having their victory taken away from them by (as it must seem) an alliance of professional politicians and metropolitan Remainers. And that supposes that the validity of another vote is even accepted. Leavers might decide to boycott another plebiscite, throwing the legitimacy of the whole process into doubt.

The Brexit crisis has turned the U.K. into a bitterly divided nation. The referendum itself turned old against young, city against town, and England and Wales (which chose to Leave) against Northern Ireland and Scotland (which voted Remain). The worst of it is that the splits do not appear along “normal” lines of Left and Right, Labour and Conservative: The country is more fragmented than riven.

Given this confusing and angry mosaic, no result at all—leaving with no deal, a deal along May’s lines, Norway Plus, a second referendum, or indeed in the end simply remaining—can be ruled out. For now at least, no one is at the steering wheel, the crew are mutinying, and the ship of state is on fire.

Glen O’Hara is a professor of modern and contemporary history at Oxford Brookes University. He is the author of a string of books and articles on modern British government and politics, including Governing Post-War Britain: The Paradoxes of Progress, 1951-1973 and The Politics of Water in Post-War Britain. He is a regular commentator on contemporary politics in the press and has written for the Financial Times, the Guardian, and the Independent.

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