Way back in ancient history (January), Europe Elects published a piece explaining the mess that is British politics. Regrettably, things appear to have got worse since.
So we’re going to try and explain what’s happened since, and what’s to come.
What has happened since?
As I predicted in my last Brexit piece, May’s withdrawal agreement was defeated not once, not twice, but three times. The Withdrawal Agreement, sometimes called the WA, is the legal text agreed between the UK and EU dictating the nature of Britain’s departure from the European Union. It discusses the so-called “Brexit bill” (how much money the UK owes the EU), and deals with issues like ex-patriot citizens in both jurisdictions and borders.
The deal has been criticised by more remain-leaning voices as being too hard a Brexit, and by more leave-leaning voices as being too soft a Brexit. May’s deal, stuck between a political rock and hard place, was defeated by record breaking margins. The deal is now both the fourth largest and largest defeat suffered by a government in the last 100 years of British history.
Who will be the next Prime Minister?
As a result of this embarrassment, Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative Party (Con-ECR) had run out of patience with her. After a significant amount of internal pressure, she resigned as party leader, triggering an internal leadership election, which will de facto select the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
After ballots of MPs whittled down the candidates to the final two, Conservative party members will get to choose between former Mayor of London and former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and current Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt.
What plans do they have for Brexit?
The former Mayor of London is the moderately more hardline Brexit candidate on the internal party ballot paper. Boris Johnson has been accused of promising all things to all people, as some reports have suggested he wants to leave without a deal but others have suggested that he wants a deal.
His key selling point to his followers is that, as one of the key voices in the Leave campaign back in 2016, he is ideologically committed to Brexit at any cost. He sees the new deadline of 31 October as a hard deadline which, if a deal has not been passed by parliament, he would be happy to see pass without a deal, forcing the UK onto WTO rules – a “no-deal brexit”. However, in a televised debate for the BBC, he refused to be drawn on whether he might change his mind.
Having both voted for May’s deal at one point or another, both Johnson and Hunt have suggested that there are parts of it which should be salvaged, however, they have also said they want to renegotiate the deal. Both have pointed to issues with what is known as the “backstop”. The backstop is a mechanism designed to prevent a border being created on the island of Ireland between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. It essentially keeps the UK in the regulatory sphere of the EU (following EU law on goods), until such time as a deal is agreed. Their main opposition to it, and that of hardliner brexiteers in their party is that the EU has the final say over whether to end the backstop, not the UK.
While Johnson has argued that he would use the UK’s “Brexit dividend” as leverage, refusing to pay it until the UK gets a better deal, they have both said they would also ramp up preparations for no-deal. This would include the stockpiling of certain medicines, foodstuffs and other products, in order to show the EU he was serious about doing the costly thing of leaving without a deal. Johnson has argued that the risks of no-deal touted by many academics and analysts are overstated, as some have suggested that leaving without a deal could shrink UK GDP by 8%.
Will their plans work?
The EU have said categorically on multiple occasions, including as recently as this week, that the withdrawal agreement cannot be renegotiated, irrelevant of who is in 10 Downing Street as the British Prime Minister.
EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier (EPP) has also said on several occasions that the deal Theresa May achieved was the only one possible.
This is due to a number of EU commitments to different member states, most significantly to Ireland, with the EU a unilateral guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement which brought about an end to a forty-year conflict in Northern Ireland. The EU has guaranteed that no formal border will be created between the UK and Ireland, with the current border only existing on a map, invisible on the ground. The backstop is how the EU intends to guarantee this, whatever the trade deal and future relationship agreed between the UK and the European Union.
The deal is unlikely to pass parliament unchanged.
So if there is no deal to be made and ratified by parliament, and your name rhymes with Doris Ronson, it is likely that your bluff is going to be called and your hallowe’en party will be particularly scary this year as you lead the country out of the EU at 2300 CET on the 31 October.
This, however, is unlikely, with MPs making moves to prevent a no-deal brexit taking place. Their argument is that leaving the EU without a deal is a very dramatic way to read the 52-48 majority that Leave won over Remain back in 2016. Many UK members of parliament have suggested that the risks are too much, and the threat to the UK economy too great, that they would ensure that parliament (the ultimately sovereign body under the UK constitution) would step in to prevent this. Every opposition party is explicitly opposed to no deal.
The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow MP, said that it was “blindingly obvious” that the mother of all parliaments would need to give permission for this to take place. One contender in the Conservative leadership race, former Attorney General and Brexit Minister Dominic Raab, had suggested using an age-old precedent in UK law to “prorogue” parliament – essentially lock the doors to prevent parliament blocking it from legislating against no deal. It was later pointed out this was a precedent which had not been used recently, and one such use had caused the English Civil War in 1642. Raab was knocked out of the race in the third round. While Hunt has ruled out this process, Johnson has not.
So what will happen, then?
There are really only three options facing the next UK prime minister:
- Persuade enough MPs to back the deal – if the new PM could sweeten the deal, perhaps using assurances in the political declaration with the EU (the next stage of brexit talks), or even a promise of a referendum on the deal (Brexit on deal terms v. Remain), there is a chance the deal could pass on its fourth attempt in parliament. Many have argued, including leadership candidate Rory Stewart, that some old fashioned pork barrel politics might be able to get it over the line.
- Prorogue parliament – if there’s no deal to be passed, and the new government wants to commit to no deal, then closing down the legislature may be the only option. This would undoubtedly cause an uproar, and even a parliament in exile.
- General election – both candidates have promised not to call one. Tory MPs don’t want it as their party is set to be decimated in any elections that come, as it was in the European Elections last month. There is a chance, however, that it may become the only course of action. If proroguing is too severe, and the deal won’t pass, then a general election in which the new PM runs on a platform of their deal, may be the only option.
With talk of seventeenth century warfare, threats to the EU and even a no-confidence vote in the new Prime Minister as soon as they take office now circulating around Westminster it’s fair to say things in the British Isles are getting a little out of hand. Stay caught up with Europe Elects on social media to stay ahead of the curve.