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.

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