Thanks to last week's shock election result, the PM will be prisoner to swings in public opinion in a way she had hoped to avoid. This could lead to her rethinking Brexit entirely—would Labour respond?by Jolyon Maugham / June 14, 2017 / Leave a comment
The decision on when and how and whether to Brexit is, of course, a political one—and the future is not yet set. Gina Miller, who brought the Brexit supreme court case last year, gave parliament a say on whether to withdraw from the European Union. A Dublin high court case tried and failed to give parliament a continued say on whether to withdraw. Both sought to put power into the hands in which, in a parliamentary democracy, it belongs. The hands of our elected MPs.
MPs hold the key. But they are also accountable to those who made them MPs. Sometimes more and sometimes less so.
An MP elected with a manifesto mandate can take cover behind it. An MP representing a party with a large commons majority is further from opposition. For an MP, keeping close to your constituents’ views on the issues they care about matters more than the issues they don’t. And all the while you need to remember where you are in the electoral cycle.
In her bid to make MPs less accountable to what she feared would be the changing views of the electorate Theresa May failed.
Because it didn’t get majority support, the Tory Manifesto will not, many lawyers think, be protected from House of Lords interference by the Salisbury Convention. Indeed, in choosing to “prune” some of its own manifesto pledges, the Conservative Party seems to accept that logic. That opens the door to the House of Lords to involve itself in decisions around the timing of any decision to repeal the European Communities Act 1972—the legislation that keeps us in the EU as a matter of UK law—and the government’s judgment calls in the so-called “Great Repeal Bill.”
“Real wage growth is sustaining its worst performance since the Luddites were smashing up machines”
The need to rely on a confidence and supply arrangement will force the Conservative Party—and the Democratic Unionist Party—to remain sensitive to the public mood. Indeed, May recognised this back in April when she said in the Commons “I think it is right to ask the British people to put their trust in me and the Conservative Party to deliver on their vote last year.” She asked; they said no.
And Brexit is likely to rise again in importance. For the commentariat, of course, it never went away. But as its effects start to be felt on the ground it will rise again for voters at large. Indeed, it may well be that it was precisely to avoid this occurring at a point in time temporally proximate to the 2020 election that May called this election. But on that too she failed. And the unstable nature of a minority government operating with a confidence and supply arrangement means MPs can never be confident that their choices of today will be forgotten tomorrow.
So, all in all, the situation is more volatile than once it was. And parliament will need to be more responsive to public concern.
And that concern will rise. Real wage growth is sustaining its worst performance since the Luddites were smashing up machines. Consumer spending has gone into reverse. The service sector has stalled. Inflation is on the rise—on Tuesday we learnt that it has hit a four-year high. The OECD is predicting employment growth will go into reverse. The NHS faces a recruitment crisis. Business confidence has plunged. And that’s even before we begin to talk about the effects of Brexit on public finances.
Amidst all of this, Labour will maintain its present balancing act. It will promise to restrict free movement and it will do so whilst advancing the politically convenient fiction that it comes without economic cost. Ugly though this is, there is a reason why Remainers can continue to support the Labour Party. It’s not an attractive reason but it might make sense. You have to assume that in power Labour would readily find a way to Remain either in the EU or in the single market. In other words that it doesn’t mean what it says.
“The political consequences of the government’s lack of preparedness for Brexit may be unpredictable but they should not be understated”
More dynamic is the position of the Conservative Party. At the moment it is hard to imagine that it might pivot to supporting continued single market membership. But its political future looks very bleak. It will be holding the steering wheel as Brexit takes its toll on the economy; it will bear the brunt of the ugly compromises forced on it by a confidence and supply relationship with the DUP; Theresa May is hugely tainted—and many of her more likely successors even more so; and the political consequences of the government’s lack of preparedness for Brexit may be unpredictable but they should not be understated. Influenced by the increasingly powerful Ruth Davidson, it may be that the Tories come to see single market membership as a way for the party to recover a reputation for economic competence and attractively differentiate itself from Labour.
And would Labour respond? Could we move to a position where, having competed with one another to deliver an ever harder Brexit, the major political parties came to compete for a softer one or even a second referendum? If the electoral mood changes, we could.
Whether we do depends on whether the electorate sees Brexit as the foundational issue for the chaos that lies ahead. And that, in turn, depends on us. Don’t stop saying it. Don’t pretend Brexit is done. Keep pointing the finger. Don’t let your MP off the hook. The fat lady hasn’t sung. She was on stage. But she’s wandered off to powder her nose.