The fate of Britain’s economy, society and role in the world remains desperately uncertainby Peter Kellner / April 1, 2019 / Leave a comment
The margins were narrow but, as Churchill famously said, one is enough. Parliament remains deadlocked. The position may clarify by Wednesday evening: more debates and votes are certain. In the immediate aftermath of Monday night’s divisions, neither the propositions that will be put to the Commons, nor the decisions that MPs will take on them, can be predicted with any confidence.
If, as some have suggested, MPs are asked to choose between the government’s withdrawal agreement and a customs union deal, the votes in recent days suggest a close result. It could depend on whether the Liberal Democrats, SNP and Independent Group (now Change UK) support a CU next time if pitched head-to-head against the WA. So far they have failed to back a customs union when it is presented as a yes/no choice, so as to achieve top ranking for a referendum—something they have twice achieved, in the latest division with 280 votes for a referendum, compared with 273 for a customs union.
However, it may be that the way forward is determined not just, or even mainly, by that choice, but by a decision about process: will parliament push ahead with some form of Brexit this spring, or will the electorate be asked for its view first, in either a referendum or a general election?
The excited chatter over the weekend suggested an early election. From the viewpoint of the Conservatives, would that make sense? They would almost certainly have to fight it with Theresa May as leader, and almost all of them recall with a shudder what a terrible campaigner she proved to be in 2017. Then there is the little matter of what on earth the party would say in its manifesto about Europe—and how many candidates would ignore the official party position and stake out their own.
Most important of all, an early election would be an enormous risk. A few weeks ago, when eight Labour and three Tory MPs left their parties to create the Independent Group, Labour suffered in the opinion polls and the Conservatives moved into the lead. The latest survey after last week’s dramas, by Deltapoll, showed Labour with a five-point lead. The Tories also now have to reckon with the resignation of the whip by Nick Boles, the MP for Grantham who had been the target of deselection efforts by his local party. He will now sit as an independent conservative.
In truth, nobody can have the faintest idea what would happen in an early election. The danger for the Tories is that an unpopular prime minister, a divided Tory party, and the possibility of right-wing anti-EU voters switching to Ukip or Nigel Farage’s new Brexit party, could all combine to cost the Conservatives dozens of seats. For Tory MPs to vote for an early election would be—how shall we put this?—to play Brussels roulette. The only reason for not dismissing the prospect of an early election altogether is that the present parliament could descend so deeply into chaos that it cannot continue to function.
A new referendum is the more intriguing possibility. Ministers consistently pour cold water on the idea. However, behind the scenes, some of them—and, indeed some of the prime minister’s backroom team in Downing Street—have been exploring the options. One is the package deal proposed by Labour’s Peter Kyle and Phil Wilson. If the government will accept a confirmatory vote, enough Labour MPs will vote for a Withdrawal Agreement-plus-referendum motion to ensure a Commons majority. (If MPs decide to plump for a customs union instead, the same deal could guarantee a stable majority for the various votes that the subsequent legislation would need.)
Either a general election or a decision to hold a new referendum would, of course, require Brexit to be postponed until after 22nd May. We are told this would require the UK to take part in this year’s European parliament elections. I’m not sure that would be such a calamity; however, one argument for a new referendum is that it might actually spare the UK involvement in these elections.
The reason can be found in a paper on the matter by the European parliament’s legal service, leaked to the Financial Times. It stated that the newly elected MEPS would be able to start work in July, even if the UK were still an EU member and had not taken part in the elections. This means that the European Council’s demand that an extension beyond 22nd May would require UK participation in those elections was a political demand, not a legal necessity.
Let’s apply this point to an autumn referendum. The legislation would state that if the UK voted for the particular version of Leave offered in that referendum, Brexit would automatically take place, say 30 days after the referendum. No more parliamentary votes would be needed. The departure date would be fixed, let’s say for 31st October. In these circumstances, we could say to the EU council: let’s leave the UK’s places in the European parliament open until then. If Brexit takes place, the absence of British MEPs would have had little or no impact on the European parliament (newly elected MEPs do not really get down to business until after the August break); while if we voted to stay in the EU, new elections to choose Britain’s MEPs could take place before Christmas.
With a general election, extension of UK membership would be open-ended—one year, two years, maybe longer. The case for sitting out this May’s European parliament election would be much weaker.
General election? Referendum? Something else? Who knows. The latest votes have left the waters awkwardly muddied. The fate of British politics—indeed Britain’s economy, society and role in the world—remains desperately uncertain, and will remain so for some more days yet.