Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday 10 July 2018

Brexit Endgame: Stage 1

A characteristic of many endgames in chess where the result is clear is that pieces leave the board quickly to make the eventual win obvious. What we have seen with the resignations of some (Davis, Baker and Johnson at the time of writing) is but the first stage in that process. As I had anticipated, the Brexiters have split, probably for two reasons. The first may involve calculating what the best way of becoming May’s successor is (remember any calculation does not need to be correct). The second is about whether trying to bring May down is more dangerous to Brexit than accepting defeat and playing a very long game. Let me expand on this last point.

BINO (Brexit in name only, or something very close to it) is not a stable position in the long run for a large country like the UK. The very long game for Brexiters sees BINO as a first stage in a gradual distancing of the UK from the EU. The big problem with this strategy is demographic: Brexit was a vote of the old against the not so old. For that reason the instability of BINO is more likely to lead to rejoining, although when that happens depends in part on the EU. But bringing May down could simply backfire and halt or even end Brexit, as it can only be done by enough Brexiters joining Labour in voting against May’s Autumn deal with the EU. If the deal is voted down by parliament we are in ‘anything can happen’ territory, and that anything includes leaving with no deal, no Brexit at all, a new Prime Minister or even a new government. Remember also that it is easy for Brexiters to make threats now, but actually voting against a deal is something else. [1]

A vote of no confidence in May among Conservative MPs, although it will probably be talked about endlessly by the media, is also the least important event in all this. May will win, because Remainers do not want to risk a Brexiter Prime Minister. If Brexiters have any sense they will leave any vote until later anyway, for the reasons I will now explain. 

We have seen the first stage of the Brexit endgame, the first set of pieces to come off. The plan hammered out at Chequers, as Chris Grey explains, is the basis for negotiation that I said May needed to get on the table, but it also cannot be accepted by the EU for many reasons. In terms of pieces still to go, the elaborate attempt in the Chequers plan to give Fox the appearance of still having a job will not stand. But having to concede in effect staying in the Customs Union, and seeing Fox (and others) go? is the least of the three changes the EU will probably require compared to that plan. The EU is unlikely to accept a goods only Single Market deal for the whole of the UK, and is even more unlikely to accept the UK staying in the Single Market without also having freedom of movement.

How the endgame is played by the EU now becomes important, because it will determine when (not how) this all ends. The end result for Brexit if it happens - some form of BINO - is not in question unless something very surprising happens within the EU. But May will be desperate to avoid that becoming clear for as long as possible, and it is up to the EU the extent to which they let her play that game. To continue the chess analogy (my apologies for those who do not play), May wants an endgame that allows her to postpone the inevitable (i.e. to avoid agreeing to BINO) until the time control period of 40 moves comes to an end (we leave in March 2019, and enter transition). That requires a withdrawal/future framework deal that is vague enough that it is not obvious that freedom of movement will continue. Even that may not be enough for May to get any deal through parliament, but that is all she has to play for.

The calculation the EU now has to do involves working out what outcome is most likely in ‘anything can happen’ territory. If they think there is any risk of no deal they might play along with May’s attempts at fudge (although the Irish backstop cannot be fudged). But if they see as the most likely outcome that Brexit comes crashing to an end, then maybe they will play for that form of endgame. That calculation will have a strong influence on how this all ends. Which is not surprising. By triggering Article 50 the UK government gave up control and put our fate in the EU’s hands, like a novice playing a grandmaster.

[1] Actually ending a government is much harder than most imagine after the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. Would Brexiters really join the opposition parties in a vote of No Confidence in the government and become responsible for a possible/likely Corbyn led government? At the moment a vote against any deal with the EU would lead to a No Deal Brexit, but I suspect May has enough leeway to stop that (and the EU would always accept a request for more time to avoid that outcome). She could even threaten the Brexiters with ending Brexit if any deal falls: unlikely I know but it would put various cats among pigeons.


  1. I'd love you to be right but I dont think so. You are right in that the only options are BRINO (EAA in all but name), CETA and crash out. CETA and crash out are indistinguishable in the short term, the collapse of logistics etc that either would impose will decimate hi tech industry; neither has a majority in parliament. EAA does. This was obvious before the vote, after the vote and after triggering article 50. Barnier's slide showing the "red" line and outcome was true then and remained so since. There never was a third way, nor would Labour have found a different solution (how the solution is sold might vary but not its details). Where I think you are wrong, is there is a vocal minority around 33 % of the population who correctly think now or never, stoked up on cultural regret in changing world, hatred of immigrants or sovereignty. BREXIT is a totemic issue dimly understood, only the harsh reality of a crash out where the harm manifests on them will change their mind. For even if they accept the possibility of harm, they think they will be alright it will happen to those they hate "establishment" types like me and you. Case in point the BREXIT supporting workers at Airbus, JLR, elderly in care homes etc. The venn diagram of Brexit ultras and Tory party membership shows the later is almost a subset.

    Secondly you attribute a flexibility on timing the EU do not have. The legal deadlines will have to be met, for anything to be approved. This cannot be last minute to midnight fantasy of David Davies.

    I expect the crash out simply because the clock will run out, that the Brexit ultra's will paralyse the Tory party thus parliament. There will be never be until its too late a clear vote on crash out or EAA. If necessary they will delay by bringing down May triggering a leadership election but not a general election. Labour will sense too much advantage in watching the Tory party own the chaos to offer a policy of BRINO. Instead they will stick to their line as now, if only we were in charge (doing the same as the Tory party pretending the Barnier slide does not exist). From a selfish point of view this is sensible, the Labour Party will not be in power before BREXIT, why not pretend if only you had been there you would have found the magical BREXIT and avoid the blame of the actual one.

  2. Should the word "game" here be applied.

  3. I listened to Tom Watson yesterday, and while saying another referendum was not currently on the table, if Parliament was to prove deadlocked then it could become an option.

    Is this the only way to get referendum now? Presumably it would need Labour to run on that policy at the next general election on the back of a parliamentary impasse.

  4. Frankly I can't see May getting this deal through the HOC; this sort of deception is inconceivable (see Martin Howe's legal take on the Chequers plan - very revealing). If this is indeed the plan then May is even more incompetent than I had thought and I think she is very, very incompetent.

    If the EU does go along with May then this might be prima facie evidence that it's not a good deal and will be seen as BINO and itself raise a red flag to the Brexiteers; in view of what Martin Howe has said it is indeed BINO.

    There has to be a fair chance we will have no deal and have to go down the WTO route, because if this is fudged people will know and there will be considerable anger with May.

  5. I don't understand why a single market for goods but not poeple is an acceptable solution to the Northern Ireland border problem. Surley ending freedom of movement will create the all the problems accociated with any form of harder NI border than we have now?

    Am I missing something?

    1. Because the Republic already shares ports and airports passenger data with the UK, to prevent illegal non-EU immigration.

      In future identity checks can still be avoided at the border as long as immigrants, both EU and non-EU, are checked at ports and airports north and south.

      There isn't really an NI border problem though, I live there and voted Remain. The Good Friday Agreement allows the UK to have as "hard" a border as it likes, because tariffs, trade, international relations, etc are excluded from North-South cooperation under the GFA.

      "No hard border" was simply something May conceded to get to the next phase of negotiations (but the EU has not defined "hard border"), but failing to have a soft one is OK. Dissident republican terrorists are weak and unpopular, oppose the GFA anyway, and would be impeding north-south trade if they attacked. They would also risk all the civilian bystanders who use any border posts.

      Thus, the Irish border is actually the weak leg of the *Remainer* stool and not the Leaver one!

  6. I have understood that the assumption behind the old/young leave/remain demographic is that old leavers die off, and more young remainers join the electorate, thus changing the balance of the whole electorate.

    I have seen similar arguments about the Scottish independence referendum, and in the protestant/catholic Northern Ireland/united Ireland debate.

    The NI case seems sound, as migration from one branch of Christianity to another is measurable but relatively small compared with birth/death rates.

    In the age driven shifts, I have seen analyses of previous generations that show that as people age, they statistically become more socially, and politically, conservative.

    There is also a general ageing of the population, more people older longer, and lower overall birth rates.

    Why then would today's middle aged cohorts not become more conservative, thus sustaining, if not enlarging, the older leave cohort, and the similar older anti-independence/pro-union cohort?

    Is there anything specific/unusual about the values of the current middle aged population that would prevent them following previous generations' change of values as they age?

    1. I would be interested to see figures of how those who voted in the 1975 referendum voted this time around.

      Since it was a big win for Remain in 1975 a lot mist have changed their minds. You could call this conservatism, but also that the EU is no longer the EEC and the growth that was promised appears not to have materialised. Mass immigration from the continent is also a new issue.

  7. "The big problem with this strategy is demographic: Brexit was a vote of the old against the not so old."

    Many of the people I know who voted to join the EU in 1972, voted to leave in 2016. Views are not fixed for a lifetime. As time progresses there will be proportionately more old people.

  8. "The big problem with this strategy is demographic: Brexit was a vote of the old against the not so old."
    We've heard this type of reasoning about Republicans as well: Rep are on the balance older, Dems are younger and over time, Dems will therefore come to dominate.
    I'm more than ready to believe that 60-year olds of a generation ago were more racist and sexist than 60-year olds of today but far from ready to believe that this will translate itself into the type of political shifts (pro Dem, pro Remain) that some people hope or expect.
    And, as Terry Johnson suggests, if (absolute) ageing just turns people into conservatives, the move may be in the opposite direction.

    1. It isn't ageing that turns people into conservatives but rather accumulation of residential equity. Since millennials have mostly been priced out of home ownership, they'll stay on the left.


Unfortunately because of spam with embedded links (which then flag up warnings about the whole site on some browsers), I have to personally moderate all comments. As a result, your comment may not appear for some time. In addition, I cannot publish comments with links to websites because it takes too much time to check whether these sites are legitimate.