THERE used to be an old joke: if you can remember the Sixties, you weren’t there. One could say with equal justification that if you think you understand the current state of Brexit in UK politics, you must be completely confused.
To some extent that confusion is deliberate—some players in the Brexit game want you to be confused. Unless Prime Minister Theresa May is herself utterly at sea, the only other explanation of her policy at this point is that she and her cabal of Downing Street advisers want Parliament and the voters, especially on the Tory side, to confuse her Withdrawal Agreement (WA) with a clear commitment to leave the European Union. Otherwise she would not repeatedly declare that she is determined to achieve Brexit as she recommends passage of the WA—and to insist, moreover, that she will deliver it by the due date of the 29th of March.
But it’s a stretch to see the Withdrawal Agreement as a fair interpretation of the Brexit vote. It commits the UK to follow the rules of the EU customs union and single market while depriving the country both of voting power in EU institutions and of any right of departure from these rules without the EU’s agreement. Simply put, its so-called “backstop” provision states that the UK may not escape from this subordinate status until the EU is satisfied that Brexit won’t impose a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. That could mean the EU might indefinitely resist an EU-UK trade deal that removed the border threat in order to keep Britain under permanent control or, less dramatically, might use the backstop as a means of striking a very hard bargain in such trade discussions.
There were other reasons for rejecting the WA—such as the payment of 39 billion pounds in a divorce payment to the EU which in return promised only to negotiate an EU-UK free trade agreement. But the indefinite and legally binding character of the backstop was the overriding reason why the House of Commons rejected the WA in January by the massive majority of 230 votes—an unprecedented defeat for a government motion.
In effect MPs sent May back to Brussels to negotiate the removal of the backstop or at least its legally binding character. Her WA deal would then be objectionable on many grounds, but it would not longer be the practical denial of the Brexit she continually claims to support. She duly went, but as yet the Eurocrats have refused to make such changes. And they seem disinclined to do so because they sense she may be losing control of British policy.
Not without reason. May’s general haplessness and drift have weakened the bonds of party discipline and given license to all the different factions both in the Tory party and the Opposition to push their own favourite versions of Brexit. Though the present House of Commons is not as firmly Remainer as conventional wisdom claims, most of the projects advanced by MPs, including dissident Tories, have leant heavily to the Remain side with calls for a second referendum or the softest of soft Brexits.
Not long after May’s defeat, therefore, a small but distinguished multi-party group of dissidents sought to take control of the Brexit parliamentary process away from the government and place it in the hands of a coalition of overt and covert Remainers, namely themselves, with the stated object of widening the choice of solutions (that is, beyond Brexit) before MPs. Since the Speaker of the House, John Bercow, was apparently complicit—against precedent, the advice of his clerks, and his duty of impartiality—in this constitutional shenanigans, it had to be taken seriously. Government whips lobbied hard to defeat it. And in the event the rebels lost six out of the seven motions they had put down. The seventh motion—to reject a No Deal Brexit—was not binding on the government. It passed but, significantly, where a stronger version had lost.
As in the debates before last summer’s recess, therefore, the Whips had shown they could deliver parliamentary victories for Brexit if May and her Ministers gave the backbenchers a firm lead in that direction. They will shortly have the opportunity to demonstrate their prowess again since the dissidents intend to launch a second set of motions in the next few weeks.
Will May give her party a firm lead on those future occasions? It seems doubtful. She seems to dither incurably between trying to unify her party around a mildly pro-Brexit position and hoping to craft a coalition of Remainer Tories and moderate Labour MPs in support of the latest version of her Withdrawal Agreement, while in pursuit of both strategies she describes her aim as one of absolute determination to achieve Brexit.
Having just won a victory over the Remain dissidents, she now seems to be switching sides to win their support. As I write, she is sending letters to Labour’s Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, to discuss his proposals for a softer Brexit which include the concession to Brussels that Britain would remain in a permanent customs union with the EU. Her apparent willingness to consider this proposal sympathetically is alarming the Brexiteers on the Tory benches—as is the rumour that this time the government Whips will mount a soft resistance to the next Remainer mutiny to give it a partial success and the Prime Minister more “flexibility”.
Interpreting the actions of a politician imitating a weathervane is obviously difficult. But it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that May is going through these contortions with the ultimate aim of remaining compliant with the EU in all policy areas, both practically and legally, while becoming technically an independent “third power”. Certainly the broad trajectory of her views in that direction. If her present cautious move towards working with Labour MPs to get the next version of her Withdrawal Agreement through the Commons is defeated a third time, however, she would then have to look in other directions—and in particular towards a Brexit policy that could command broader Tory unity than any exiting proposal.
That is the moment for which a mixed group of Remainer and Leave MPs—Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg and Remainer former Minister Nicky Morgan among them—has crafted something called the Malthouse Compromise. As its mixed support suggests, it brings together ideas from both sides. But it leans more towards Leave than to Remain. And that reflects the calculations of its drafters that the Tory Party overall is now overwhelmingly a Leaver party. Indeed, conservative opinion outside Westminster seems to be hardening, partly in response to the hostile and contemptuous attacks on the country from European leaders in Brussels. Among Tories, blue-collar workers, and Remainers who place a high value on democracy, support is growing for an avowedly No Deal Brexit. So any Tory policy on Brexit will have to be stronger than May’s WA if the party is to remain together.
Yet as these increasingly heated debates rage on over increasingly abstruse technicalities, an observer is bound to be struck by how detached it is from events actually taking place across the Channel in Europe. These developments are going in two opposite directions.
The first consists of official EU plans and forecasts emanating either from the Brussels Commission or from discussions within the Franco-German “motor” of Europe. These are aimed at producing greater European integration across the board from a common taxation policy to a common European security policy separate from NATO. Both of these are major steps towards a federal European state that Britain opposed for almost the entire forty odd years of its EU membership.
If the UK should try to remain an EU member before March 29 or, more realistically, apply to rejoin the EU after Brexit, it would be compelled to accept whatever new forms of integration the EU had adopted in the interim and to forgo its present opt-outs from earlier treaties. Among other things, that means it would have to abandon the Pound and accept the Euro which even today is threatening a financial crisis in Italy and continuing to devastate the living standards of Greece.
And that brings me to the second set of events. If we look at the EU and its member-states, they do not currently offer any very reassuring visions of economic success and political stability. They are all in different kinds of turmoil.
France is in its umpteenth week of widespread violent rioting—in which the police seem to be acting as violently as the rioters—against a president who ran on a ticket of modernising France economically and accelerating the integration of Europe. President Macron has now withdrawn some of his liberal economic reforms, but he has not succeeded in halting the riots. His “European” ambitions have meanwhile been put on hold since his ally, Chancellor Merkel, no longer has the clout to make Germany pay for them.
Indeed, German politics is now frozen as Merkel, clinging to power, frustrates attempts by her own and other mainstream parties to respond to the voter discontents aroused by her 2015 politics of “Welcome” to Middle Eastern migrants. As a result the “populist” AfD (Alternative for Germany) party, which a few years ago was not even in the Bundestag, is now the main official opposition party and runs about equal with the Social Democrats in polls. It achieved this breakthrough with policies that challenged the previous multi-party consensus on migration, multiculturalism, and Europeanisms. And it did so at a time when the German economy was booming. But the latest economic forecasts suggest that the German economy is slowing down and may even be heading into recession.
And if the Franco-German motor is in trouble, other EU states will have to hike to the future. Italy is facing both a new Euro crisis and a serious diplomatic spat with France over its support for the gilets jaunes rioters. Greece continues to see its growth stagnate and its debts rise with every new EU bailout. Central Europe is refusing to obeys Brussels on the mandatory distribution of migrants through the Union, “populism” has just spread from there to Andalusia in southern Spain with the emergence of new right-wing governing party with policies similar to AfD’s. And the entire European establishment is anxious about the forthcoming EU-wide elections which are expected to reduce the power of the mainstream parties’ duopoly in the European parliament.
When EU Council President Donald Tusk wondered what special place in Hell would be waiting for Brexiteers, Yanis Varoufakis, the Greek former finance minister who resisted the “death by bailouts” that the EU imposed on Greece, responded: “Probably very similar to the place reserved for those who designed a monetary union without a proper banking union and, once the banking crisis hit, transferred cynically the bankers’ gigantic losses onto the shoulders of the weakest taxpayers.”
It’s not clear why the UK establishment holds those who crafted the euro and migration crises in such high regard that it dreads freedom from them. I am tempted to think that British policy towards Brexit and the EU is an attempt to replicate in politics a sexual perversion unaccountably omitted from Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis: the desire to be a passive partner in a necrophiliac relationship.
It won’t end well, or begin well either.