The authoritative source for independent research on UK-EU relations

31 Jan 2019

Politics and Society

Following Tuesday evening’s votes in parliament on the government’s plans for securing its arrangements for withdrawing from the EU, it’s worth stepping back and pondering why it has found itself in such a sticky situation.

The impasse has not been resolved by either the Spelman or the Brady amendments: one says that a no-deal should be avoided, the other that the backstop for Northern Ireland isn’t acceptable in its current form.

Neither offer a constructive course of action, for the simple reason that the Commons is tangled up with three interlinked tensions, one perceptual, one strategic and one structural.

The perception issue is that MPs remain very much driven by party politics, even as Brexit forces up issues that don’t sit along party lines.

This is most evident on the opposition benches, where Labour’s policy remains that the solution to everything Brexit is a Labour government, by means as yet unexplained.

But it’s also deeply baked into the Conservative party, from Theresa May’s choice to follow a hard Brexit policy that spoke to the base rather than the middle ground to the unwillingness of Tory (and DUP) MPs to vote in support of a motion of no confidence despite profoundly disagreeing with that government’s central policy.

Topics such as the right shape of any future UK-EU relationship, citizens’ rights or the backstop do not fit easily into this environment, as witnessed by the various strange bedfellows that have been spotted around Westminster of late, not least last night.

This feeds into the second dilemma. Number 10 is doggedly pursuing a policy of “May’s deal or no-deal”, running down the clock to deny the opportunity for alternatives to gain traction. But many MPs do not seem to be buying this logic.

Despite losing the Tory party confidence motion and demonstrating the reliability of a majority for a government in a motion of no confidence in parliament, a lot of MPs still believe that they retain the option to delay, reshape or even stop the process.

Whether or not that is true, the important point is that the simple belief shapes actions: the Brady amendment is a case in point.

And this is the structural problem.

Everyone in the Commons is weak. Theresa May is weak, with a divided Tory party and a troubled relationship with the DUP. But so too is Jeremy Corbyn, facing his own internal divisions in Labour. For any outcome to this process there are supporters in the Commons, but none have a majority, with one exception.

Unfortunately, that exception is opposition to a no-deal, a negative position, rather than a positive one. Being against something is not the same as support for something else, as parliament is finding out all too well.

But because everyone looks weak, there is little incentive to be the one to give ground. With each group feeling that their cause is both right and just, and perceiving fatal flaws in the views of their opponents, no-one wants to be the one to make a compromise.

All sides are digging in, not reaching out. This despite the cumulative effect being to move parliament ever closer to the no-deal outcome that it says it very much does not want.

In part, this comes down to an unwillingness by all involved to talk about the costs of their preferred outcomes. That might be understandable in the marketing and promotion of options, but it does a deep disservice to the public in the longer run.

We know that a resolution to this current blockage must be reached; be that leaving with a deal, leaving without one, extending Article 50 or revoking it.

It would be foolish to say which of this might actually happen, but already at this stage it is evident that the outcome will not enjoy deep and widespread support, either in the Commons or more broadly. Most likely, it will be chosen through trying to find the least-worst option at a moment of great time pressure.

That means the outcome will not be a stable and resilient basis for developing a new relationship with the EU. That relationship will be needed in any eventuality: much as some might wish, Europe does not disappear on 29 March, never to bother anyone again.

The irony here is that Article 50 has been a relatively simple process: it’s about managing the liabilities that ensue from the UK’s withdrawal. By comparison, the questions that the coming phase of Brexit – finding a new place in the world, in all senses – are much bigger and much more challenging.

If Parliament and the country think that the current moment is difficult, then it is likely to find the next few years a rather unpleasant shock to the system.

By Dr Simon Usherwood, deputy director of the UK in a Changing Europe and reader in politics at the University of Surrey. This piece originally featured in the Times Red Box.


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