Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Friday 17 May 2019

Is Brexit still possible?

My last post was about how Labour should move from supporting Brexit to supporting Remain, because there is no chance that their kind of Brexit deal either being approved by parliament or attracting majority support from voters. This holds before and after any elections.

You may think Labour should support Remain simply because it is the right thing to do. I have written many posts saying exactly this. But many within Labour, including crucially Corbyn himself, do not agree. This is why we should also think about whether supporting Brexit is a feasible strategy, which is what my last post does. The post also shows why supporting Brexit will now lose Labour votes.

But the logic of that post also applies to any deal, including the government’s own. There is always a blocking group of MPs made up of a combination of Brexiters and uncompromising Remainers, and if the deal ever squeezed through parliament there would always be a large majority of voters who would hate it and take their anger out on the government.

May tried relentlessly to get her deal through without any support from the Labour leadership. I cannot see how events might conspire to help her in the period before she leaves. Indeed the success of Farage will embolden the Brexiters, particularly as they are close to getting a Brexiter as Prime Minister. Unless Corbyn wants to commit suicide on behalf of the Labour party, May’s deal is the proverbial dead parrot, with the government as the shopkeeper.

The only chance she had was to make serious compromises with Corbyn in the negotiations. Doing something that could split her party is not something she would do. Even with a joint deal the numbers look tight if there is no second referendum attached, The number of Conservative MPs who voted for her deal the first time they voted was just under 200. That rose to 277 by March, but with Farage as background and a general aversion of Tory MPs for ‘doing a deal with a Marxist’, the number could be more like the first vote than the last.

Among 246 Labour MPs, perhaps 120 would vote against a joint deal because it didn’t include a People’s Vote. That leaves around 125 who would vote for a joint deal. The majority needed is 320. It is close, but perhaps not large enough to get all the Brexit legislation through. If a People’s Vote was included that would probably be a stable majority, but in that case the deal would easily be rejected by a combination of Remainers and Brexiters.

Would a Brexiter Prime Minister make any difference? How could it? It would increase the size of the Brexiter block. The idea that the EU will substantially improve their deal with a Brexiter as PM is pure fantasy. Brexiters will play the long game: hope to gradually increase their number in parliament, and to win an election with a big enough majority to get No Deal through parliament. A Conservative party committed to No Deal is the only way the Tories have to neutralise Farage.

This all suggests that Brexit in any form based on Article 50 is just not possible. A May-Corbyn deal was the best shot, but I don’t think either side are prepared to do it at the end of the day. Yet no one will admit that Brexit is stuck with no obvious way forward. It may require a new Prime Minister to admit the inevitable. They have a big incentive to do so, as at the moment Brexit has brought normal government to a halt.

What about the EU - will they want to go on extending Article 50 again and again? At some point they will issue an ultimatum: no more extensions so agree a deal, revoke or leave without a deal. That will certainly ‘stress test’ the analysis above. Will that persuade enough MPs to agree a deal? If it does not MPs will vote to revoke. The most likely outcome of this stress test is a vote for a referendum and a request to the EU to allow time for one, which they will give. Any referendum will be won by Remain unless parliament is foolish enough to put No Deal on the ballot, because Brexiters as well as Remainers will campaign against it.

So Brexit is stuck, with no foreseeable way to successfully implement it. I have waited some time before writing a post with this conclusion. I have kept saying this is wishful thinking and something unexpected will turn up to make Brexit happen. It still could, but I suspect Farage is the final straw. It seems odd writing that Brexit is on its deathbed, in a coma but with no chance of recovery, when a year ago the Remain cause seemed hopeless. The thing everyone under estimated was the way Brexiters themselves would effectively kill Brexit.


  1. Our government should consider the interests of 100% of the population, from those in the cradle to those on their death bed. I think ~27% voted to leave the EU.

  2. I have written two things previously on this blog.

    First, that the EU referendum process is best compared to the Tory membership pushing the creation of the poll tax.

    And second, watch the Redwoods.

    From the Conservative Home website this morning.

    Gareth Baines: Why the Tory grassroots are pushing ahead with a vote of no confidence in May. Under her leadership the natural party of government has been reduced to a point where electoral annihilation appears a real possibility.

    John Redwood: Why populists reject the establishment – and no longer believe what it tells them. Here in Britain, the two main parties are being punished by voters for tearing up their Brexit commitments.

  3. "May’s deal is the proverbial dead parrot, with the government as John Cleese."
    Would this not work better with "with the government as the shopkeeper (Michael Palin)"?

  4. "unless parliament is foolish enough to put No Deal on the ballot". That's a bit rich. In the past, you've accused the conservative party and neoliberals of using political deceit to reduce the size of the state by stealth through austerity. Likewise, you've accused Rees-Mogg and other brexiters of Leninist deceit. Don't you think what you're proposing is the same sort of deceit? The right thing to do is to persuade the public of the costs of brexit and allow them to decide.

  5. Why would a future brexiter PM not put no deal on a referendum ballot? Surely it's more likely the put no deal against a deal as apposed to a deal Vs remain?

  6. "Any referendum will be won by Remain unless parliament is foolish enough to put No Deal on the ballot, because Brexiters as well as Remainers will campaign against it"

    Don't understand this sentence. Why would Brexiteers campaign against no deal? Surely that is exactly what they want.

    It's boiling down to 2 options: no deal and no brexit. All attempts to find some form of soft brexit have failed: the government tried and their deal was rejected by parliament; MPs tried with their series of indicative votes but none could command a majority; the tory-labour cross-party talks couldn't produce anything either.

    The last thing we need is a rerun of the flawed 2016 referendum with leave (whatever that means) against remain. That risks just going around the same loop once more. To be legitimate, the referendum must put two well-defined choices against each other, and the only two seem to be no deal or no brexit.

    I don't think there is a majority in the country for no deal, so such a referendum should result in a remain victory. And I think that's the only way to see off the brexiteers, to have their proposal put to the electorate and rejected.

  7. OK, Labour under Corbyn comes out as Remain (still unlikely - would be opposed by many MP's such as Caroline Flint) and that would need a compelling narrative as to why Labour ditching its 2017 manifesto commitment to respect the result of the 2016 referendum.

    Probably politically more sensible for Corbyn to finally accede to principle of second referendum, if no general election called by new Tory leader.

    But: although Remain might win a divisive referendum, that would not settle the matter; ERG-dominated Tory party would continue to agitate they had 'been cheated' and with the Brexit party press for a future EU exit, using continuing EU membership as a figleaf for assorted discontents to tap into potential populist groundswell.

    Alternatively, new Tory PM, goes for a Managed No Deal mandate in Autumn 2019 GE.

    That might well splinter his/her party but how many Tory MP's would defect to Change UK?

    In the absence of a pact between the Greens, LD's and the Greens (no chance?) and with some co-operation between Tory and Brexit parties, Tories could well win.

  8. What worries most however is how weak the inroads into the Brexit discourse seems. The mood seems to be stuck on betrayal of MPs rather than the Brexit betrayal - economic deceptions about people's futures, reduced growth, higher prices, companies moving etc., future layoffs, reduced tax base, public services reduced.

    The Progressives have not matched the Brexit tabloids or Farage in providing simpler economic messages. Yes we know here the real economics but for people disadvantaged/low waged and living in Brexit areas the messages have not just got through.

    Its trying to 'deconstruct' why the Brexit voters are still embracing a wealthy man called Farage with a new party almost a virtual party with polling indicating 10 times more than Change UK that we see the problem. Regrettably and after three years the Brexit discourse dominates even amongst those who will suffer most and in that sense all the opposition parties have somehow failed in some ways. If the progressives are going to beat the populists I fear they will have to get a lot harder, sharper and reach the least advantaged - ChangeUK, Lib Dems, Greens and Corbyn Labour must get out of the echo chamber and contact the Brexit elderly and the regional Farage devotees

  9. Andrew Marr's programme today (2.6) included Rice, Chair of the Brexit Party, repeating at large the fake news that the European election result demonstrated (as the Brexit party 'won') that the will of the people to leave with No Deal and the US Ambassador confirming that a UK/US trade deal would cover all areas of trade, including health services and UK regulatory alignment to US food standard ((he dodged the question but advised that the UK consumer would have a choice as to whether to buy or not: in other words, yes).

    No real challenge by AM himself and muted points by others. These did not focus on the government's own published conclusion that UK No deal EU exit would be the msot economically damaging, which Brexit and Tory No dealers would seek to be mitigate by sacrificing sovereignity to the US, rather than pooling it as at present with the EU to secure higher economic and social goals.

    Way out? Not clear until Tory leadership contest plays out, but No Deal, 'managed' or not, , if applied, should lead to Commons no confidence vote, and GE, if enough Tory Remainers abstain or vote in favour.

    Due to Labour division (MP's, rather than Corbyn), parliamentary vote for second referendum, or revocation of Article 50, seems even less likely than a successful no confidence vote.

    Certainly Labour narrative must embrace business, those working in manufacturing dependent on european supply chains, working class patriots who don't want the UK to become a colony to the US, and the wider population desiring economic efficiency and social justice to be combined (difficult under Brexit in any case due to future hits on the public finances).

  10. Is Brexit still automatic?

    3 weeks with no comments approved.


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