A Way out of the Brexit Impasse

September 6, 2019
September 15, 2019
UK Politics

How the mighty have fallen. A week ago, Boris Johnson appeared the master of all he surveyed. He had restored the Conservative party to a substantial lead in the polls. His consigliere, Dominic Cummings, already a legend through Benedict Cumberbatch's portrayal of him in the made-for-tv movie about the Brexit campaign, was viewed as a latter day Machiavelli. The government had achieved a level of message discipline unimaginable under Theresa May, and even the leaks which continued to occur with regularity added to the image of menace, especially when they involved tales of war-gaming, prorogation, and constitutional crisis. A week later all of this seems to have vanished. The Prime Minister has lost every vote of his Premiership. Parliament not only voted to force him to request an extension to Article 50, they then denied him an election when he asked. Having all but announced an election himself, the failure to achieve it left him looking humiliated. The decision to remove the whip from 21 Conservative Mps became a PR disaster, compounded by two poor PMQ performances. He even lost his own brother. Scenting blood, the opposition set aside their differences over whether an election should be held in favor of what united them; a determination to never give Boris Johnson what he wanted. If he wanted an election he would not get it.

If Boris Johnson's strength was something of an illusion a week ago, the success by his opponents is equally exaggerated now. Their unity is a product of Johnson's mistakes, the inherent weakness of the position he inherited from Theresa May, as well as the methods by which he entered office. Assassins rarely prosper in politics, and Boris was far too close to the knife when it entered May's back. His cabinet is dominated by those who spent more than a year sharpening the knives. His own actions during the referendum were already seen as disloyal to David Cameron. A man who had shown a willingness to sacrifice political self-interest for personal or party loyalty could credibly have demanded it from others. The purges of May loyalists, many of whom had little use for May but were in any case Tory party loyalists, too easily were cast as hypocrisy.

Johnson's opponents in turn are united only by hatred of him. Even their unity on Brexit was created not by certainty as to what should be done about the prospect of No Deal, but rather by the conviction that Johnson could not be trusted to do it. They were unable to agree on an individual to lead a proposed unity government, and have no clear idea of what they want from the process. They are divided between advocates of a "soft brexit", a second referendum, no brexit altogether, or merely opponents of Johnson. The only thing the legislation ensures is a three month extension at which point they will have to go through the whole process again.

The Europeans are likely pleased to see Johnson humbled, and to that extent they almost certainly welcomed recent events. For that reason alone, they are almost obligated to offer an extension. A second go-around three months later must be less appealing. With no clear purpose to the proposed extension, they will have to go through the same process again in January while condemning the UK to constant instability for the next five months. Perhaps there will be a general election at some point, and maybe that will provide a solution. It is equally likely it will provide further confusion. What if it returns the same result, a Conservative minority where Corbyn is unable to form a government but the Conservatives are unable to govern?

Even an opposition coalition would struggle to resolve the issue. Revoke would be difficult to justify without a referendum, and a referendum would be divisive to setup, brutal in practice, and potentially resolve little. No set of options would confer legitimacy. A binary choice between the Withdrawal Agreement and Revoke would be condemned as rigged by Leavers who could credibly argue that No Deal is the most popular option for Brexit. No Deal is functionally meaningless as a choice and would likely be vetoed by the Liberal Democrats. The campaign would split Labour, allow a chance for Leavers to run a populist campaign of mobilisation, and could produce another Leave outcome leaving the "governing" parties in a position of implementing a policy they did not believe in. What about a "Soft Brexit"? For all Labour is nominally in favour of such an option, it is a poisoned chalice. It would do little to satisfy No Deal Leavers, but while Remainers may prefer it to crashing out, enabling any sort of Brexit would crush their hopes of remaining within the EU. If Labour were to push through any sort of Brexit then, it, not the Tories, would be the party that killed Remain. That is why it will be difficult for any Labour government to pass any Brexit deal whatsoever. As long as the UK has not officially left, then in theory A50 can still be rescinded and the UK remain in the EU.

The problem from the start has been that a majority of MPs do not want Brexit but also are unwilling to take upon themselves the political costs of either voting for a second referendum or revoking. That will not have changed. It has not changed even if Johnson drove them into action to prevent Britain from crashing out.

If one accepts that leaving without a deal is unacceptable to a majority of the Commons, that revoke is impossible politically without a referendum, and a referendum is undesirable, there is one more option. That would be for the EU to remove the causes of constant crisis from the process. It is not Brexit itself which forced the showdown of the last week, or brought down Theresa May. Rather it was the deadlines enshrined in Article 50. The debates about whether to extend are what has made the failure to achieve a deal a binary choice between crashing out and not leaving the EU at all, and are also what has drawn the EU back into the process despite a determination not to reopen discussions on the withdrawal agreement. A simple solution would be to remove the time limit. If the EU were to offer a de facto unlimited extension, say of a 100 years the EU then could claim that

  1. The UK can leave the EU whenever it wants. All it has to do is achieve a majority for either "No Deal" or some sort of Deal. It can also revoke.
  2. In the meantime the EU will have nothing further to do with the process. No talks, no renegotiation, nothing.

Why would the EU offer this? Don't they want rid of the UK? Didn't Macron threaten to veto the last extension and in the end get it truncated from nine months to six? Well yes, but also no. There is no doubt that European leaders are tired of Brexit. They have said so openly. Macron's threats were part of that as were the warnings "not to waste the extension which was granted." However, those efforts failed. Rather than focusing minds in London on a desired Brexit outcome, they instead focused minds in Westminster on the domestic political implications of the October 31st date. That date had no meaning whatsoever until Macron imposed it as a publicity stunt. Now it is what all British politics revolves around. Even Macron himself has conceded that was an error and backtracked on vetoing any extension. One of his allies is floating the prospect of an extension that would last for a minimum of two years.

Why? It is not because Macron has decided he is not tired of Brexit after all. Rather it is because European leaders have been persuaded that allowing the UK to crash out will not allow them to move on from Brexit, but instead accomplish the opposite. At the moment they can address themselves to Britain intermittently, especially as the UK is not seriously negotiating nor do they have any intention of doing so. But if the UK was to crash out, not only would the EU have to managed the fall-out of a No Deal, but they would also have to devote their full attention to British internal politics until a new relationship is achieved. It would be one thing if the British people and government decided to crash out. But any crash out that was due not to a democratic decision, and no for these purposes the referendum does not count as endorsement for No Deal insofar as as opponents do not accept it as such(and for stability that is what matters), but due to the unconstitutional and potentially illegal behaviour of the executive. Such an action would almost certainly be followed by a general election which might or might not produce a clear government, and even if the Conservatives won a majority it is far from clear they could unite around a future relationship which after all would have to resemble the withdrawal agreement. Nor can the EU be seen to abandon Pro-EU elements in the UK as long as they are fighting, not due to any obligation to British citizens, but rather due to EU public opinion.

The choice facing EU leaders is not between waiting until the UK passes a WA, or letting Britain crash out and be done with the matter. As the EU has defined the Backstop as non-negotiable either as part of a pre or post-Brexit relationship the choice is between investing a small amount of attention into Brexit while the UK remains in limbo until Britain decides on an option(deal, no deal, revoke) or having to put aside all else and devote the Union's full attention to British matters until the UK accepts the backstop and WA following a No Deal departure. Given that could take months of general elections, referendums and who knows what other chaos, the trade-off is obvious. The easiest option for the EU is to keep the UK in until the UK accepts a viable model of the future relationship.

That does not of course mean European leaders lack preferences. Having to renew extensions every three months as conceived in the new legislation will be a massive imposition on Brussels, and may well further destabilise British politics. The October 31 and March 31 deadlines have been disasters. The answer then is to go for a longer deadline.

But wait, why would the UK ever accept this? After all, the indicative vote process was a fiasco, Labour is still committed to a Brexit deal, there are no votes for a second referendum much less revoke. Well European Union Withdrawal Bill (6) has an additional clause. While requiring the PM to request and accept a 3-month extension, in the event the EU rejects it and offers a different one the Commons must vote on it. This means the EU can directly submit a proposed extension to a Commons vote without the need for it to be introduced by the government or any MP or party. Furthermore, that vote on October 21 will be a direct up or down choice between accepting whatever extension is on offer or crashing out without a deal in 10 days. As it is highly unlikely that a government without a parliament will be at all prepared to crash out then, it is probable that MPs not only will hold their noses and accept it, but will be more likely to do so as they can claim it was imposed by the EU. It provides a degree of deniability that any indigenous proposal does not.  It would be easier to accept than either a second referendum or revoke, as it could be blamed on the EU and the Johnson government which created the circumstances where the choice was between an indefinite extension and crashing out. In the longer term, it would deescalate the issue. By removing the time limit, the political split in the UK would not be on Brexit outcomes, but rather between voters for whom Brexit was the most important issue and everyone else who was fine to leave it to some future date. That would be a step on the road to restoring normal politics.

The result would be to put the entire matter back in the UK's court. It would also reverse the nature of the constitutional crisis. At the moment, a failure to agree on a deal by the deadline results in "No Deal" and the fact that a substantial portion of the electorate prefers that outcome creates an incentive to block any other deal. If instead the default outcome was to Remain in the EU until a deal could be agreed it would place pressure on Leavers to compromise. In turn, by shifting the default Remainers would be able to keep the UK in the EU simply by maintaining a plurality over any specific option for leaving.

Politics is about the art of the possible. As a practitioner of game theory like Dominic Cummings must understand, you reach the possible by eliminating the impossible. If the nature of politics and the conflicting interests of the actors make both a deal and no deal impossible, while leaving a second referendum or revoke undesirable, that leaves defanging the issue. Removing the time limit, hence the need to reach a deal or make a decision by a certain date reduces the costs of the status quo to all parties. Is the status quo ideal? No. But the only thing majorities seem able to agree on is that it is preferable to any alternative outcome. Removing the time limit would accomplish that end.


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