In less than a week we shall probably know whether the Brexit deal negotiated by Theresa May will be approved by the House of Commons. It looks unlikely that it will. But a great sense of foreboding surrounds that likely rejection. It would plunge the UK into uncharted territory. How could a people that prides itself on its pragmatism arrive at this point?
One shorthand answer is this: the entire Brexit saga – from David Cameron’s promise to hold a referendum – has featured the unknown. In the beginning it was consistently underestimated and played its part with a vengeance. Now, it is difficult to ignore because some of the features of the UK political system that have hitherto been prized are appearing as factors that prevent resolution.
Let’s begin with the referendum promise. Cameron made it to survive one parliament but had to deliver in a future one. He assumed the composition of the parliament would make no substantial difference. He was wrong.
He made the electoral promise when the unambiguously pro-European Liberal Democrats were at their electoral zenith and when Labour still campaigned on putting the UK at the heart of Europe. But he had to deliver when the Lib Dems had been almost wiped out of the House of Commons and when Labour was led by Jeremy Corbyn, with his Eurosceptic past and, at best, an ambivalent pro-European in the present.
That affected the non-Conservative votes that could be won. A referendum campaign is not run by political parties. The two referendums held in the UK within the previous five years – the one on the voting system and the other on Scottish independence – were misleading. Each cause was actually associated with one minor political party (the Lib Dems for the first, the Scottish Nationalists for the other). But Brexit as an issue cut through the two major parties.
Cameron underestimated the difference. He thought he could win by following the model of his electoral campaign a year previously. But he couldn’t follow the negative campaigning of his electoral campaign because it would have meant an assault on major Conservative politicians.
Since Cameron expected to win, he held back Remain’s fire, thinking he had to preserve party unity for after the victory. Since the Brexiters expected to lose, they attacked with less restraint, aiming to lose by an honourable margin.
But Corbyn’s lukewarm endorsement and refusal to campaign on the same platform as Cameron meant that crucial Labour votes that could have been won, in a close referendum, were not.
The next set of unknowns followed after the referendum. A referendum is supposed to be an icon of deliberative democracy. But they are one-off decisions without that distinguishing mark of deliberation: second thoughts.
Second thoughts were always likely with an issue like Brexit. The referendum may have been styled as an act of pure popular sovereignty, but the decision taken was to begin negotiations with 27 other countries. What those countries would decide was up to them. The Leave campaign could only wager; it couldn’t know.
The one thing that could have been known is that the EU simply couldn’t afford to grant a withdrawal deal that wasn’t obviously worse than membership. Withdrawal with similar benefits would mean the end of the EU.
Labour is saying it could renegotiate the deal on more favourable terms. Perhaps. But that’s unknown
So, once a Remainer (admittedly a lukewarm one) was elected the new Prime Minister, one thing was obvious. No deal that the new Prime Minister negotiated could satisfy the majority of parliamentarians – even if May had not called a general election and weakened her position in Parliament considerably.
First, there is the deal itself. Once it was obvious that the deal was inferior to the status quo (with compensation only imaginable if great international trade deals were negotiated some time in the future), Remainers and Leavers would both complain.
The Leavers, with some chutzpah, would say that it was the lack of conviction of a former Remainer that was to blame for a weaker deal, and not the logic of an objectively weak negotiating hand.
Second, the weakness of the Opposition leader himself – Corbyn’s problems with being seen as of prime ministerial material and with leading a divided party – weakened May. The weakness of her rival made challenges to her authority seem less serious.
(For anyone wondering why Joseph Muscat, given his extraordinary parliamentary majority and the Opposition’s weakness, goes to such lengths to put money into his backbenchers’ pockets, there’s your answer: the rock-solid majority makes him more vulnerable to challenges on particular issues.)
Which brings us to the unknown today. How could a Parliament that is overwhelmingly against Brexit, in terms of the personal opinions of its MPs, still feel so indecisive before the available options? The reason lies in the imponderables present at both the level of policy and the level of electoral calculation.
At the level of policy, neither the Tories nor Labour have an easy decision. What is there to propose beside the deal on offer? There is no return to pre-Brexit – staying in the EU would probably cost the UK some of its hard-won opt-outs that, in the past, justified EU membership.
Labour is saying it could renegotiate the deal on more favourable terms. Perhaps. But that’s unknown. And if Labour fails to deliver, it will be punished harshly – because the only way in which Labour can get into a position to renegotiate is by winning a general election. Unlike a referendum, a party can be held accountable for that.
Electorally, it’s hard to see how either of the two parties of government could embrace a Remain stance. The Brexit vote was not decided on party lines. The major factors were age (older voters favouring Brexit) and education (university education is a reliable predictor of a Remain vote).
No party can adopt a Remain stance without severely endangering the loyalty of an important part of its core vote.
The idea that sufficient voters would cross party political lines is very optimistic in the light of the 2017 general election results.
Paradoxically, sticking to a pro-Brexit position is electorally safer for the politicians. From a policy point of view, they can say the policy was chosen by the people, not by them. They deliver a worse deal but can claim democratic excellence.
From an electoral point of view, the first-past-the-post system (FPTP) favours big parties sticking together, since smaller parties are significantly disadvantaged. The argument for FPTP, versus proportional representation, is that it produces more decisive governments. Here, however, it’s destined to keep producing governments that embrace Leavers and Remainers within them. So far, it’s been a recipe for indecisive government.
Nothing in previous experience has prepared the current generation of UK politicians for this: a policy for which no political party, as such, is to blame; in a system where it is blasphemy to blame the people; in a Parliament made up of an overwhelming majority who believe the defining policy of the age is folly; but also uneasily aware that class inequality often makes an MP unrepresentative of the people he or she is supposed to represent; in an electoral system that does not permit politicians to coalesce in new ways to match the emerging divisions in the country.
No wonder the future is imponderable. Would a second referendum resolve matters? Not according to the current polls.
This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece
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