Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Thursday 13 December 2018

Will the Brexiters kill Brexit?

How do we rationalise the Brexiters refusal to vote for May’s proposed Withdrawal Agreement (such that she pulled the vote), and then attempting to bring her down? It appears like the actions of a petulant child that refuses to accept they cannot have the expensive toy they have just seen in the shop, even after they have been offered a less expensive toy. Rationally they must know they are a clear minority of MPs, and so their desired outcome of No Deal is not going to ever be voted for by MPs. But they hope that they might still get what they want by other means.

That other means is of course the fact that, if the UK does nothing, we leave at the end of March 2019 with no deal. So their strategy has always been one of obstruction and delay. Refusing to vote for May’s deal was part of that obstruction, and when she refused to be formally defeated by pulling the vote they took their opportunity to bring a vote of no confidence. (We should not overestimate their prowess at strategy. An earlier attempt had failed: they needed May to try and subvert parliament by pulling the vote to get the necessary 48 MPs to trigger the vote.)

I was pleased they failed, because success would have almost certainly increased their chances of pushing us over the March cliff edge by denying MPs a say. With Conservative members having the final vote on the leadership, an ERG member was quite likely to win that vote (which was of course the main reason why they didn’t win their No Confidence motion.) The executive denying MPs a vote should not be possible, and its legitimacy could be questioned (including by the EU), but that would not stop a Prime Minister from ERG’s ranks trying. The ERG and their press backers have shown zero respect for parliamentary democracy since they secured their 2016 referendum result.

They didn’t win, and in toddler tantrum style they responded by a fairly direct threat to bring down the government if May did not get a major concession from the EU (which she will not). However it is unlikely this threat will work: May has always wanted a deal rather than No Deal, and she is likely to persist with trying to get this through parliament. But it is hard to see how she can, as the ERG will still vote against and Labour and almost all of its MPs will not dare to support her deal in its current form. We seem to be at an impasse.

In pushing things to the wire, the Brexiters are risking that there will be no Brexit. Given time I suspect MPs would vote for a referendum, and if they did not and there was still an impasse they now know that the day before the UK formally leaves they can call the whole thing off by revoking Article 50. So why are the Brexiters risking an end to their whole project? It is partly because they are pretty fanatical and prepared to take such a risk, but there is something else.

A mistake some people make is to see Brexit as some kind of continuum, with No Deal at one end and BINO/perpetual transition at the other. In which case, why don’t the Brexiters compromise with something like May’s deal? But as I argued here, Brexit does not work like that. If your concern is sovereignty, it is arguable that you have more as part of the EU than you have under May’s deal (see the diagram here). When the ERG talk about the UK becoming a vassal state they mean it. May’s deal effectively keeps the UK in the Customs Union as long as the EU wishes it, and the Brexiters do not want the kind of deal that would make the backstop unnecessary. So May’s deal is not even a staging post to what they want.

To be honest this is the second big mistake I have made about Brexit. (The first was seeing rather late, although not as late as many, the importance of Ireland.) I have until recently been unduly pessimistic about the chances of a People’s Vote because I had implicitly assumed that the Brexiters would back a compromise, figuring that it would be a stepping stone to a harder Brexit at some later stage. The fact that for Brexiters a compromise may be worse than staying in the EU will lead them to risk Brexit itself by going to the wire.


  1. Why isn't labour pushing for Remain now? Public opinion has surely shifted by now. In the current arrangement, the UK gets a lot of the good parts of EU while leaving out the bad stuff like the Euro currency. Leaving the EU now means that if the UK wants to rejoin at a later date, it maybe forced to join the Eurozone, and that's something I honestly can't support unless the EU reforms itself substantially. I really wish the opposition would put their weight behind Remain and avert this disaster.

  2. Brexit is about delivering a batter yesterday. Ashcroft's survey showed that those think things were better in the past usually voted for Brexit while those who think things are better now, mainly voted to stay.

  3. In her confidence vote, May did better than Thatcher in 1990 but worse than Major in 1995 and Neville Chamberlain in 1940.

    We need to start thinking about the proper franchise for a second referendum, enfranchising those groups which should have got the vote in 2016.


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