In parliament and the country different Leavers clamour for different—and contradictory—outcomesby Kirsty Hughes / October 23, 2019 / Leave a comment
Brexit lies mired, as ever, in the unpredictable quicksands of shifting coalitions. Tuesday’s twin votes—one for Johnson’s deal (at second reading) and one for delay—illustrated this perfectly.
Johnson succeeded in uniting Tory MPs behind his amended version of May’s deal for now—with many of the ex-Tory rebels lending support too. But he lost the DUP in the process. Some Labour and ex-Tory rebels voted for the Bill—to have a chance to amend it—but then went on to vote, quite rightly, that Johnson’s three-day timetable was ludicrously short.
Brexit has long been a game of spinning plates—can the various coalitions needed to push a deal through be kept together, or will this only be resolved after an election or referendum?
Johnson identified correctly that the Brexiteer-ultras of the European Research Group would not support any version of the indefinite customs union that May’s deal promised. In jumping to a harder version of Brexit, necessitating a customs and regulatory border down the Irish Sea, he not only dropped the DUP plate but demonstrated that the Tories are no longer the party of business or the union. The hard UK-EU border implied by Johnson’s basic free trade deal would be even more damaging to business than May’s deal.
But Johnson got the ERG on board by this shift. And his strategy of threatening the chaotic damage of a no-deal Brexit also kept a couple more plates spinning. Tory rebels, who voted for the Benn Act (ensuring that Johnson did ask for an extension), have mostly fallen in line behind this deal, hard though it is both economically and constitutionally—any deal is now, apparently, better than no deal. Likewise, 19 Labour rebels have too backed Johnson’s deal, at least for now, rather than face no deal or no Brexit.
But whether we face an election or the next stages of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, the quicksands of different Brexit groupings coalescing and falling apart will not go away any time soon. Many Labour rebels want to add amendments to protect worker, consumer and environmental rights—given short shrift in the current version of the bill. Will ERG MPs go along with that? They might to get the bill over the line—or they might not.
The ERG’s overarching goal is a Brexit nirvana on World Trade Organisation terms, the UK in renewed imperial glory striking grand deals across the globe. Against that, both pro- and anti-Brexit MPs will look to amend the bill to ensure parliament has a say in extending the transition period, keeping us closely tied to Europe for longer. If they succeed, will the ERG plate crash to the ground? If they fail, and a new form of no-deal Brexit beckons for December next year, will Tory and Labour rebels rethink their support?
These political splits reflect the range of views across the wider public. Many voted for Brexit as a protest against untrammelled globalisation, while others bought into the “Global Britain” story. Many who wanted limits on EU citizens coming to the UK were not voting for more migration from the rest of the world. And those voting for Brexit in the face of austerity were not looking for a Singapore-on-Thames deregulatory UK.
Johnson has trailed a changing and often dishonest Brexit narrative in his short time as prime minister. It’s a tale of the sunny uplands of a Brexit deal finally done, where little mention is made of the years of future trade and security talks with the EU. His story is of a glorious defiant UK, gung ho in the face of EU or parliamentary blocks, and it’s aimed at the core Tory and Brexit Party vote.
But there is no escaping the detail of Brexit. And it’s the detail that will determine whether the shifting coalitions come together, finally, to support or reject this version of the divorce.
If Johnson’s deal does go through, there will be years ahead of these same competing narratives—bringing back the customs union, rejoining the EU or heading down the “pure” Brexiteer path of hard borders and deregulation.
Added to that will be intense debate about the future of the union, with the Scottish government demanding a second independence referendum, Northern Ireland’s politics strongly impacted by its separate deal, and Wales looking askance at the hard Brexit it will be living with.
Whatever Article 50 extension the EU now offers, Johnson will have to die in a ditch for Brexit another day than 31stOctober. And if Brexit, in the end, doesn’t happen, the competing narratives of that outcome will reverberate through British, especially English, politics for many years to come. There is no easy escape from Brexit’s quicksands.
Kirsty Hughes, Director, Scottish Centre on European Relations