Brexit watch — Brexit splits the country

Publication date

Monday, June 3, 2019

Approval date

This headline could well have been used for the first article in this series, after the 2016 referendum result found 52% in favour of leaving the EU and 48% in favour of remaining a member. Three years later, the May 2019 elections to the European Parliament have highlighted a still divided country with the spectacular gains of the new Brexit Party at least partly balanced by strong showings by the committed Remain parties: the Greens, the SNP and, particularly, the Liberal Democrats. Voters seemed determined to punish the two main parties with the Conservatives taking the blame for failing to deliver Brexit while Labour’s prevarication on a second vote also failed to impress (leaving it falling to an unprecedented fifth place in Scotland). Although the pro-Remain Change UK failed to win a single seat, this was offset by the almost compete demise of Mr Farage’s previous party, UKIP. The final result saw at least 33 of the UK’s 73 MEPs being in favour of the end of its membership of the Union.

The end of May

Anticipating a drubbing in the European Parliament elections, Conservative MPs finally brought an end to Prime Minister Theresa May’s period in office just before the results were announced. With opposition mounting to her attempts to return her Withdrawal Bill to Parliament for a fourth time, she finally bowed to the inevitable and announced that she would be resigning on 7 June, although she said that she would remain in post until her party had chosen a new leader. The final straw for her colleagues seems to have been Mrs May’s announcement that she would be prepared to concede putting a confirmatory vote back to the people if the House of Commons would finally agree to vote in favour of her deal. Given that this meant she was going even further than the Leader of the Opposition - who was still determinedly resisting attempts by some of his colleagues to push him towards backing a public vote - this was clearly seen by the Brexiters in Conservative ranks as a concession too far and the Leader of the House, Angela Leadsom, immediately resigned her post.

Boris Johnson or?

Within a matter of days Mrs Leadsom surprised no-one by announcing that she was prepared to put her name forward to replace Mrs May, and she was not alone. At the time of writing she had already been joined by former Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab, Environment Secretary Michael Gove, Health Secretary Matt Hancock, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, former Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey, Housing Minister Kit Malthouse, Brexit Minister James Cleverly, former chief whip Mark Harper, Home Secretary Sajid Javid, International Development Secretary Rory Stewart and, of course, the former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. With some anticipating as many as 18 candidates putting their names forward, it seems likely that the above will be fighting it out with Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt and quite possibly Sir Graham Brady who recently stood down as chairman of the Conservative backbench 1922 Committee because he was considering running. Add in one or two ambitious backbenchers (and determined Brexiters) such as Priti Patel and Steve Baker and their colleagues in the Parliamentary party are clearly not lacking options.

The situation is further complicated by an election process which involves a series of votes with the person who polls lowest dropping out, until only two candidates remain. At that point they take their case to the national party with the constituency members having the final decision. It is generally accepted that if Boris Johnson is one of the final two then the second part of the process will be largely pointless as he is by a considerable distance the favourite whenever ordinary party members are asked for their choice. This has led to supposition that those in the Parliamentary party who fear a no deal outcome will do everything possible to prevent him being one of the final two names. Indeed, one of the other candidates, Rory Stewart has already said that he would not serve in any administration run by Mr Johnson.

Deal or no deal - again?

Remainers fear Mr Johnson because he has been a vocal advocate of leaving the EU with no deal, or at least of convincing the EU negotiators that the UK is prepared to leave without an agreement. With the need to outflank Nigel Farage’s new party, and with support for the idea of no deal proving popular with both the European Research Group (ERG), in the House, and party members out in the country, it seems unlikely that Mr Johnson will soften his stance on this point. That will push those challenging him on the right – Dominic Raab and Esther McVey for example – to be even more determined to present the EU with a no deal threat. Where Parliament has in recent months repeatedly set its face against the no deal option, the Institute of Government has explained that its options in the present situation are limited and “it looks like a near impossible task for MPs to stop a Prime Minister who is determined to leave the EU without a deal”.

Mr Raab has already said: “It’s very difficult for Parliament now to legislate against a no deal, or in favour of a further extension, unless a resolute Prime Minister is willing to acquiesce in that – and I would not.” This has revived fears in the business community that they will be faced before 31 October with the growing possibility that the UK will be leaving the EU with no agreement in place as to how the two sides should continue trading. As Edwin Morgan, Interim Director General of the Institute of Directors (IoD), said: “No deal remains a significant, and growing, concern for businesses, and that cannot be wished away, whoever is in power. When companies and the country need serious, considered decision-making, we have pantomime instead. We would ask for politicians to swiftly come to a solution which provides for as smooth an exit as possible, but that feels like a vain hope at the moment.”

The clock is still ticking

The warning from the outgoing President of the EU Council, Donald Tusk, that the UK Government must not waste the six-month extension period it was given in April by the other Member States, seems to have fallen on deaf ears. With time already lost to the Easter recess and a doomed attempt by Mrs May to reach an agreement with Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, her resignation has added fresh delay. It will be the end of July before the Conservative membership in the country is given the chance to decide which of two candidates should become the new Party leader (and therefore Prime Minister).

Parliament will then be only days away from its Summer recess with MPs not expected to return to the House until early in September. The first of the three main Party conferences, for the LibDems, will start on 14 September with the third, for the Conservatives, not due to end until 3 October. Two weeks later, the EU leaders will meet in one of their regular summits; two weeks after that, the UK reaches its latest decision day, 31 October, when it must choose to ratify the exit treaty, opt for no-deal, or cancel Brexit altogether. It could in theory ask for another extension but that possibility would face strong opposition, particularly from French President Emmanuel Macron. He has made it clear that he does not want the next EU cycle (with a new Parliament and new Commission starting five-year terms of office) to again be dominated by Brexit.

How long?

The country now has its 73 new MEPs but the question remains, how many sessions in Brussels and Strasbourg will they be able to attend? After a purely formal meeting in July, there will probably be only one proper session of the European Parliament before the UK’s new Brexit date of 31 October. But with all the options still open at the moment, it is impossible to predict whether the incoming UK Members will be there for the long haul, or will have to leave before they have time to learn Parliament's rules. As newly elected Green MEP Magid Magid said: “It could be five weeks, five months or five years.”

The view from Brussels

It has often been apparent that those arguing most vociferously in Parliament and in the UK media have tended to ignore the fact that the Brexit negotiations involve two parties. From the early assertions that doing a deal would be simple because “they need us more than we need them” to declarations that the EU always backs down at the last minute, there has been a lack of awareness of why the EU Member States are so determined to stay together and maintain the integrity of the single market. Brexiters have also underestimated the EU’s desire to protect an existing Member (Ireland) against changes which an outgoing Member would like to impose.

This problem seems still to be evident, with several of the candidates for the Conservative leadership promising to negotiate a better deal than that achieved by Mrs May. With the EU now looking to appoint a new Commission, however, and having to work out how the elections have affected the balance of power and hence the coalitions that make the European Parliament work, it will not have the time or very probably the inclination to reopen the withdrawal deal. So we end up back where we were: a deadline approaching when the only choices appear to be leave with no deal, ask for yet another extension, or do not leave at all.