The impact of Brexit on our politics will reverberate long beyond 11pm on 29 March 2019, when the UK is scheduled to leave the European Union. The referendum changed what, and who, the political parties stand for.
Both main parties in Westminster, like the rest of us, are still grappling with the dynamics of the last election. And this structural shift, and how MPs respond to it, will shape the crucial choices Parliament makes over the next 12 months.
As our analysis of the politics of Brexit in this report illustrates, the 2017 general election crystallised a growing electoral cleavage, driven by Brexit but based on underlying values.
The Conservative Party fought the campaign on the basis they were the only party that could deliver the form of Brexit they claimed the referendum had endorsed. In contrast, the Labour Party’s strategic positioning on Brexit was deliberately ambiguous.
It was designed to appeal to Remain voters, while at the same time retaining the minority of Labour supporters who had voted Leave. As the British Election Study put it, for voters ‘the Tories were the party of hard Brexit whilst Labour was the party of soft Brexit’.
But, as the politics of Brexit plays out on the floor of the House of Commons, both parties face a basic dilemma: whether to embrace the logic of their new electoral coalitions, or address areas where they have lost support since the referendum.
For the Conservatives this means deciding whether to try to regain support among those who are economically but also socially liberal (and who probably voted Remain), not to mention reinforcing fraying support in the business community.
The alternative is to re-assure those seeking protection from the harsh winds of global economic competition. Labour, on the other hand, must decide whether it is the party of the liberal metropolitan voters who flocked to it in 2017. Instead, they may prioritise regaining seats in the North of England. Is their key goal keeping Kensington, or recapturing Mansfield?
Each side also faces its own specific problems in parliament. The Conservative side is characterised by a curious mixture of continuity and instability. Theresa May’s stated ambition of leaving both the single market and the customs union has survived this most turbulent of political years.
And counterintuitively, given the electoral setback this approach delivered, her parliamentary party appears to have fallen into line. In December 2016, 44% of Conservative MPs felt the referendum result prohibited remaining in the single market.
A year later, in December 2017, this was 76%. This is helped by the fact Theresa May’s Brexit policy approximately represents an increasingly eurosceptic centre of gravity within the Conservative parliamentary party.
However, May’s leadership has been severely weakened. Her parliamentary majority, and with it the political capital that comes with being an electoral asset, disappeared following the general election.
Her ability to stay in power rests on managing the dynamics in cabinet, and the split in her parliamentary party between the two sides of the Brexit divide. May is led by her party, rather than leading it. What is questionable is the long-term sustainability of this arrangement, particularly as grand objectives translate to policy outcomes.
On the Labour side, Jeremy Corbyn must reconcile the ambiguity that served him so well in the election campaign with the need to effectively oppose the Government. The Labour front bench moved with excruciating care towards the acceptance of some kind of ‘customs arrangement’ with the EU.
The alacrity with which Corbyn followed that statement with a speech railing against cheap labour undercutting British workers testifies to the complex triangulation being undertaken.
Simply put, he is attempting to reassure Remainers he is opposing the May version of Brexit whilst convincing Brexiters he is on their side. This balancing act is made more difficult by a hardening majority among Labour MPs and members in favour of a very soft Brexit, or no Brexit at all.
Corbyn, in contrast to May, was strengthened by the election, but is currently at odds with the majority of his parliamentary party on Brexit.
What all this translates into is tremendous uncertainty over what Parliament will do, as the steady stream of Brexit legislation – on trade, customs, agriculture and the like – appears before it.
We have already seen at first hand the potential problems the government faces. In December, only 11 Conservative MPs were required to inflict the government’s first, and thus far only, Brexit defeat.
Headed by the former Attorney General Dominic Grieve, these MPs voted to guarantee that Parliament would have a final vote on the withdrawal agreement prior to the scheduled exit day.
It was a striking reassertion of legislative power. It also provided evidence that the government’s numbers in Parliament could fall short if a deal cannot satisfy Conservative MPs concerned about Brexit’s potential impact.
The next test was due to be new Clause 5 to the Trade Bill, which would bind the government to a customs union with the EU. The same 11 MPs that voted for the Grieve Amendment have signed new Clause 5.
However, key members of this group – for example the senior backbench MP Sarah Wollaston – backed off somewhat following the Prime Minister’s somewhat conciliatory tone in her Mansion House speech.
The last time there was a temporary truce between May and this group of Brexit rebels was over Christmas, following the Joint Report that signalled progress on the Northern Ireland border. It didn’t last long.
Defeat for the government, which remains possible, would fundamentally restructure the Brexit negotiations with some time to spare. The Grieve amendment was a question of process, while forcing a customs union would push the substantive position of the government much closer to that of the Labour party. It would mean the Prime Minister would no longer have free reign over negotiations.
The fact that the vote has been delayed by the whips – originally due in March, now unlikely before the local elections at the end of May – speaks to the paralysis caused by the tight arithmetic in the House of Commons.
Fear of rebellion means it may be in the interest of the government to delay the eventual vote on a final deal as well. There is an increasing feeling that a deal will not be signed until January 2019.
Whilst the ‘meaningful vote’ will encompass both withdrawal and transition agreements, there is little chance that much of substance on trade can be thrashed out with the EU by then.
So the key question of British politics in the next 12 months is whether europhile Conservative MPs feel they have the ability to oppose what will be, at best, a rather vague statement of future ambitions. Their calculations are complicated by the nature of the Labour leadership. There is a real fear of opening the gates of 10 Downing Street to Jeremy Corbyn.
It is far from clear what a defeat on the government’s Brexit policy in Parliament would mean for the government. The Fixed Term Parliament Act, introduced by the coalition in 2011, means that a defeat cannot automatically precipitate a general election.
It would, however, almost certainly bring down the government. A super-majority of two-thirds is required to force a general election in these circumstances.
Instead, these rules give two weeks for a new government to form and command the confidence of the House of Commons before a general election is triggered. This could mean the immediate result would be a period of intense parliamentary haggling, both within the Conservative Party and, perhaps, across parties; and a new Brexit policy.
The outcome – from paralysis leading to the UK crashing out without a deal, through to a new cross-party alliance forming to seek a much softer Brexit or even to reverse it, to a general election – would be almost impossible to predict.
These high stakes parliamentary manoeuvres will be played out, constantly, with one eye on the next election. Politics is moving fast, and no two elections are fought under the same circumstances. Labour’s Brexit positioning was electorally propitious in June 2017 but a tactical masterstroke – accidental or otherwise – can quickly become moribund.
The Conservative strategy of doubling down on Brexit will intensify opposition among those who see Brexit as both a cause and a symptom of political change they do not like. All we know for sure is this is the Brexit Parliament and, sooner or later, we are likely to have another election defined by Brexit too.
The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.