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Will Brexit Blow Up Britain’s Conservative Party?

Europe has ended the careers of many a Tory prime minister. If Theresa May can’t forge a deal that carries a majority, she could send the party into the political wilderness.

A 'Leave Means Leave' sticker on Westminster Bridge near the Houses of Parliament on Jan. 18, in London, England. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
A 'Leave Means Leave' sticker on Westminster Bridge near the Houses of Parliament on Jan. 18, in London, England. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

On June 23, 2016, British voters decided by a margin of 52 percent to 48 percent that the United Kingdom should leave the European Union. Since then, British politics has been convulsed by the referendum’s repercussions. Some Remainers do not accept the finality of the vote. The margin, they argue, was too narrow to provide a mandate for fundamental change, while some of the arguments that persuaded voters to support Leave were mendacious. The hope that Britain could, in the words of then-Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, have its cake and eat it has proved misplaced. If, to alter the metaphor, one leaves a tennis club because one does not wish to pay the subscription and does not like the rules, one will not be able to continue to use the tennis courts on the same basis as the members. Therefore, some Remainers conclude, there should be a second referendum, to discover whether the British people still wish to leave the European Union.

The European issue is difficult for Parliament to resolve for two reasons. The first is that May’s government holds only a minority of seats—317 out of the 650—in the House of Commons, meaning it must rely for its narrow majority on the 10 members of parliament from the vehemently pro-Brexit Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland. But, perhaps even more important, both the Conservatives and the opposition Labour Party are internally divided between Remainers and Brexiteers. That division reflects a geographical and cultural division in the country.

The large cities, together with Scotland and Northern Ireland, welcome globalization and are relaxed about the EU’s principle of freedom of movement. They voted to remain. But smaller towns and older manufacturing areas, in which many feel left behind, are hostile to globalization and freedom of movement, which, they argue, have kept wages down and put undue pressure on public services. These areas supported the Leave campaign.

Parliament has enacted that Britain will leave the EU on March 29. After long and tortuous negotiations, Prime Minister Theresa May in November 2018 secured a deal with the EU. That deal comprises a legally binding withdrawal agreement providing for a transition period until December 2020, during which Britain will remain bound by EU rules while negotiating the final relationship. The pattern of that relationship is outlined in a nonbinding political declaration that hints at an outcome in which Britain could negotiate independent trade agreements, while also providing it with some degree of frictionless trade with the EU.

May’s cabinet, despite internal tensions between Remainers and Brexiteers, accepted the deal. But the Tories’ DUP allies were fiercely opposed to it, as they claimed that it might separate Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom by preventing a hard border with the Irish Republic and potentially creating a customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. The deal was also opposed both by Brexiteers in the Conservative Party, who claimed that it tied Britain too closely to the EU, and by Remainers—primarily Labour, but also Liberal Democrats and Scottish Nationalists—who argued that it allowed for too many barriers to the export of goods and services to the EU. This coalition of incompatibles imposed a crushing defeat on the government motion to accept the deal on Jan. 15. Just 202 MPs supported it, while 432 rejected it.

A defeat of this magnitude is unparalleled in Britain’s parliamentary history. No fewer than 118 Conservatives, mostly hard Brexiteers, voted against the deal, with just 196 Conservatives supporting it. And many of those who voted for it had no choice. (Because approximately 100 Conservative MPs are ministers or on the government payroll, they were duty-bound to support May or resign. This means that a majority of Conservative backbenchers were opposed to the deal.) May’s defeat, in what was arguably the most important parliamentary vote in Britain since World War II, creates a moment of acute danger for the prime minister, the government, the Conservative Party, and the country.

A harder Brexit to placate Conservative rebels would alienate Conservative Remainers. Conversely, a softer Brexit to win support from the opposition parties would increase the number of Conservative rebels.

The hope was that the deal could unite Brexiteers and Remainers. Instead it has driven them further apart. A harder Brexit to placate Conservative rebels would alienate Conservative Remainers. Conversely, a softer Brexit to win support from the opposition parties would increase the number of Conservative rebels. Indeed, there may be no deal that could hold the Conservative Party together; an alternative could end the cabinet truce and possibly lead to the disintegration of the minority government, with a general election to follow.

It has happened before. In 1979, the Labour minority government led by James Callaghan disintegrated in this way, in part because Labour was internally divided on the issue of devolving power to Scotland. Then, in 1951, Clement Attlee’s Labour government, which enjoyed a majority of only five, disintegrated because the party was internally divided between left and right. In both cases, long periods in the opposition followed.

The vote also creates a moment of danger for the country. Since Parliament has already approved a bill stating Brexit will occur on March 29, that is the default position. The exit date can, admittedly, be extended with the agreement of the other 27 members of the European Union. But those countries may be unwilling to agree if the only reason for extension is that MPs, 30 months after the referendum, still cannot make up their minds. In any case, an extension would only postpone the dilemma. It would not resolve it.

Unless Parliament passes new legislation—and there are now fewer than 40 sitting days before March 29—Britain will leave the EU without a deal. That is regarded by most commentators as disastrous, since it would mean that EU customs duties and, even more disadvantageously, an intimidating host of EU regulations would be imposed on British exports. It would no longer be as easy to send goods from London to Paris or Frankfurt as it is to send goods from London to Edinburgh.

The Jan. 15 vote showed what MPs are against. But there seems to be little agreement on what they are for. Theresa May is now seeking consensus through all-party talks, although she has not yet budged on her so-called red lines, namely that Britain should leave both the European customs union (in order to pursue an independent trade policy) and the single market (to avoid allowing free movement of people and the jurisdiction of EU courts). And the opposition parties see no reason to help her. Labour is unwilling to allow its deep internal divisions to be publicly exposed by articulating a clear alternative policy. It seeks not consensus but a general election to remove the Conservatives from power. The Liberal Democrats seek a second referendum, while the Scottish nationalists seek to exploit the government’s difficulties to further the case for independence.

There is no obvious resolution of the problem that could secure majority support.

There is no obvious resolution of the problem that could secure majority support. Were Britain to remain in the EU’s customs union, it would be unable to sign independent trade agreements. Were it to remain in the EU’s internal market, it would have to accept freedom of movement. Yet control of immigration from the European Union was one of the main motivations behind the Brexit vote.

At this point, there seem to be just three alternatives. The first is May’s deal, perhaps in a slightly modified form. The second is for Britain to leave the EU without a deal; even though most MPs are against a no-deal Brexit, they find themselves unable to agree on an alternative. The third is for Parliament throw the issue back to the people in a second referendum, even though the prime minister has so far opposed such a move, and its advocates cannot agree on the question to be asked. Finally, given that the country remains almost evenly divided, a second referendum would not necessarily resolve the conflict.

The issue of Britain’s place in (or out of) Europe has arguably destroyed five of the last six Conservative prime ministers—Harold Macmillan, Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher, John Major, and David Cameron. It may be about to bring down another.

Vernon Bogdanor is a professor of government at King’s College, London and the author of Brexit and the Constitution. His Stimson Lectures on World Affairs, “Britain and Europe in a Troubled World,” will be published in November.

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