Brexit at High Tide: Remain is winning the Guerilla War on Brexit
Mao Zedong, in his work, On Protracted War, argued that conflicts occurred in three stages.
1. Organization, consolidation and preservation of base areas,
usually in difficult and isolated terrain. ie. survival/avoiding total defeat
2. Progressive expansion by terror and attacks on isolated enemy units
to obtain arms, supplies and political support. - wearing down the enemy/denying the foe victory
3. Decision, or destruction of the enemy in battle. - conventional battle/destruction of the enemy
The first involved maintenance of a force in being, often against long odds, in a situation where few credit the movement with much chance of success. The second involves moving to the offensive, but in the form of guerrilla warfare. The goal here is not to defeat the opposing forces per se, but to prevent them from winning, and more importantly, demonstrate to opponents and everyone else that they cannot win. Such a demonstration will reduce moral, especially as it becomes clear that the insurgent force is only becoming stronger, and if their opponents have not been able to defeat them up to now, there is almost no chance they will be able to do so in the future. Even though the government forces may control 90% of the country, and outnumber the insurgents heavily, at the end of phase 2 it is clear they will not win. Neutral forces begin to hedge their bets, opportunists begin to move towards neutrality or defection, dissent breaks out in the ranks of government forces and in the corridors of political power. Enemy leaders face criticism for their failure to achieve victory, creating personal incentives for important factions and figures within the enemy forces to desire defeats so as to undermine their own leaders and potentially supplant them. Unable to defeat the insurgents, the enemy collapses into infighting, accusations of betrayal, and demoralization. At that point, insurgents move onto phase three, in which they defeat the enemy in a conventional battle.
I bring up this analogy because it applies in my view to Brexit. Almost all analysis of events in British politics, including the recent European elections, is focused on who currently represents a greater level of support. Not only is this almost impossible to establish, despite great efforts by both sides to claim victory, but it is beside the point. Politicians do not just have to win one election, and there is no election occurring right now in any case. They therefore have to make plans for the future. What matters, then is not so much the current balance of forces, but the direction of movement in that balance. And the European elections made clear that it is in the direction of the Remain forces.
They have not won yet, nor are they clearly stronger than their adversaries. Perhaps they are not even strong enough to block a No Deal Exit against a determined Prime Minister. As such, they should not delude themselves. But the price of a No Deal Exit has increased massively, and the options available for achieving that outcome,have greatly narrowed. It is now clear that Parliament will never go along with it, and any plan therefore must not just deal with the logistical challenges of a "No Deal" outcome itself but the opposition of a majority of both Houses of Parliament, the Speaker of the Commons, and (it is implicitly assumed) the electorate.
In Mao's model, Remain is nearing the culmination point of phase 2. Despite its support within elite social circles, the cause of Remain has always been a political insurgency. The leadership of both major parties embraced Brexit, genuinely it appears in the cases of May and Corbyn. Virtually the entire political spectrum conceded the need for it to take place. Even the Scottish National Party, in the aftermath of the referendum accepted the prospect, seeking a seat at the table and presenting its own proposals. The cause of Remaining in the EU was too dangerous to be spoken allowed, even by its supporters, who couched it in terms of the need for a second vote. It was the province of the Liberal Democrats, mired in the single digits, and members of the elite like Gina Miller. From that base, the goal was not to win, but merely to keep the prospect and idea alive. Here, the failure of May and Corbyn to fully extinguish it and to achieve buy-in for any Brexit prevented the country from moving on fully into the procedural questions of implementation. Had May made her cross-party approach earlier or won a clear majority in 2017, that would have taken place. That it did not was key. Even with Corbyn's equivocation, the defection of Remain-leaning high income voters in London to Labour in 2017 kept Remain alive, by denying its opponents the ability to close the question.
From the moment May's deal was presented and it became clear it would not pass, Remain moved onto phase 2, guerrilla warfare. In this phase Remain forces were not strong enough to defeat Brexiteers or even move into the open, but by taking advantage of internal divisions, they could prevent Brexiteers from winning, ie. achieving Brexit. In this, they were aided by infighting among their opponents. Once it became clear that May might not be able to deliver a popular Brexit, leading Tory figures who sought to replace her suddenly found it within their interests for her deal to fail. They succeeded. May is gone and the leadership is open. But the victory came at enormous cost to the Conservative party, which is broken, demoralized, and divided, and just won less than 9% in the European elections, the worst result since 1832. It also damaged the cause of Brexit. By damaging the Conservative party, it not only undermined the only vehicle through which Brexit could be delivered, but pushed Labour in the direction of Remain by reducing the danger to the party's right as opposed to the left.
This was not entirely an "own goal" by the European Research Group. Had opposition MPs who nominally support not only Brexit in principle, but the terms of May's deal in practice voted for it, the opposition of hardline Brexiteers would not have mattered. As has become clear, the major goal of the opposition has been to prevent any deal from passing, on the presumption that the longer the debate drags on the weaker Brexit forces become, and the greater their internal dissensions grow. In this, Remain were spectacularly successful. Not only did they kill May's deal, but the failure of Parliament to agree on any alternative, including a common market or customs union, was equally key to killing off the option of a "Soft Brexit". The key to moving the position of the Labour leadership was not persuasion per se, but eliminating the position they occupied. With the Tory party opposing the prospect of a "Soft Brexit" and much of the Labour party membership opposing any Brexit, and those who support one wanting a "Hard" variant anyway, there remained no reason to occupy that position.
Finally came the local and European elections. The important thing here was not for Remain to win a clear mandate. Hence discussion as to whether the results were a vote for Remain or against the main parties is of secondary importance. Rather, it was to demonstrate that being in favor of Remaining or a second vote was not an electoral disadvantage, and potentially advantageous compared to ambiguity. In both cases that was demonstrated. Labour was punished for not supporting a second referendum. Yes, technically they were punished for having no position, but given internal dynamics there was never a chance of Labour explicitly embracing the prospect of a Hard Brexit or a Soft one(for which there is no constituency in the country) so the choice is between ambiguity and Remain. Whether Corbyn concedes to a second referendum or Remain as official policy now is not vital. What matters is that time is against Brexit forces within the Labour party. Calls for the party to move towards Remain are only getting stronger, their opponents are stagnant or weakening, and this is evident to anyone with an eye to the long-run.
As such, the impact of the local elections and European ones has been to make Labour's defection to the second referendum or Remain camp inevitable. Which nicely meets Mao's requirement for the second phase of revolutionary war. Such a defection would leave every major political force in the country de facto opposed to any form of Brexit actually being implemented in practice(as opposed to abstract) except for the Conservatives and Brexit party.
But what about them? Won't the next Conservative leader be dedicated to Brexit, and likely committed to pursuing "No Deal"? Absolutely, and strategically they should be. Not only does the overwhelming majority of the Conservative party membership favor such a course, but no center-right party can survive discontent to the degree the Brexit party represents on its right. The Conservatives have to move to the right on Brexit, and most importantly have to be seen to have a clear position that can be defended on the door step. "You vote for Brexit, we fought to deliver what you voted for," is such a message. As such the Conservatives have to be seen to fight for such an outcome. But do they need to win? Winning presents more serious questions. What is their post-Brexit plan? It seems to assume the Brexit party will fold, which it may, and that its voters will go to the Tories, which based on 2017 is a dubious assumption. With Brexit seemingly "resolved" a majority of UKIP's working class voters returned to a Labour party which they agreed with on economic issues. With Brexit actually complete why wouldn't they do the same when Corbyn offers them money? At the same time, accomplishing a "No Deal" Brexit will leave the Tories toxic in Remain areas in the south, where high income voters will not only be angry over the policy, but over the implication that "their party" betrayed them for Brexit voters in the North. Take a look at the European results in Richmond(currently narrowly held by Tory Brexiteer Zac Goldsmith) and Kensington(Which the Tories narrowly lost to Labour in 2017). Do you think the party would have much chance at either?
This brings up an important issue about the European results. The important numbers are not Remain v. Leave, whether they are 40 v. 35(Change+LD+Green+SNP+PC v. UKIP/Brexit) or 55-45(with Labour and the Tories split). Rather they are a comparison to 2014 and 2017. The combined UKIP/Conservative/Brexit vote fell everywhere compared with 2014, often by double-digits, usually 20-25% in London, and 15% or so elsewhere. In 2014, the combined vote for the two parties was 49.7%, with an additional 1.4% for UK Independence from Europe, while the two parties won a combined 43 seats. Including Northern Ireland, parties which now support Brexit won 45/73 seats and 53.9%(55% if one includes the BNP). In 2019, those numbers added up to 44.1% and 34/73 seats. While one can make whatever claims they want about the elections not being representative(albeit turnout was up substantially) they cannot also claim they were endorsement of Brexit. If the results show Britain divided today, they show an almost 11% swing against Brexit parties from 2014, and a loss of 9 seats. That is a clear direction of travel. Even if support for Brexit in some form is still stronger than for, say, "Revoke and Forget", support for the former is lower and getting lower, while support for the latter is growing. That means any politician who has hitherto resisted the urge to support Brexit when it was more popular has no incentive to shift to supporting it now or in the future when it commands less support. By contrast, politicians supporting Brexit in Remain areas, such as Zac Goldsmith in the set of Richmond, have little reason to believe that even a success in "delivering" Brexit in the form of "No Deal" or "May's deal" will do much to help them. Quite simply there are not enough Brexit party votes to make up for the losses they have already taken.
I include the seat results for a specific reason. Brexit is now in the hands not of the electorate voting as a whole, but of Parliament, elected by constituency. A second referendum requires parliament to vote for it, and likely requires a general election to produce a parliament that would do so. One of the weaknesses of the Remain cause has always been that it suffers from a poor distribution of support. Despite winning only 52% of the vote, 64% of constituencies voted to Leave the EU in 2016. It is quite possible that even if Brexit support has fallen to 46% or so, that still represents a majority in a majority of Westminster constituencies. This is one reason for the caution the Labour leadership has shown.
While partially proportional, the regional nature of the EU election systems corrects for turnout differentials on a regional basis which otherwise influence the national results. London had turnout of nearly 43% compared to 31% in Yorkshire and Humber. That is one reason the Brexit party was able to win almost 40% of the seats on 31% of the vote. But even there, the momentum is clear. Pro-Brexit parties not only suffered a loss of 11% of the vote. Even badly distributed, that still cost them 9 MEP seats.
This analysis should be kept in mind by prospective Tory leaders. By that I mean not the next leader, whose job will be to try(and likely fail) to deliver a "No Deal" Brexit, but the ones who aspire to come after. At some point the party will need to make its peace with the electorate on Brexit. There is mileage to be made out of betrayal rhetoric certainly, but in the long run momentum is running against that, and being seen to harp on about a lost cause will eventually become toxic to the electorate. The Conservatives need to embrace Brexit for now, much harder than ever before, but with the knowledge they will also have to pivot away from it in the next 18 months to three years. Managing to balance the two will be hard.
Imagine for instance, a situation in which a future Conservative Prime Minister sees their government fall when they try to take the UK out of the EU without a deal in October. While campaigning on a platform of delivering the referendum result might serve for one election, in the event the result is a Labour minority which holds a second referendum and/or revokes Article 50, the Tories do not want to be in a situation in which every Tory manifesto for the next three elections includes a promise to re-invoke Article 50 on day one. Such a promise, which is quite plausible given the mood of party activists and members, would be a millstone around the necks of every Tory leader for 15 years or more, the shortest suicide note in history, informing voters who might want to vote for a center-right party for a multitude of reasons that a vote for the Conservatives is a vote for a return to All Brexit, All the time.
As for Remain, they have not won the war. But they have succeeded in winning two of Mao's three phases. They kept their movement in being during their worst moment, then prevented Brexit from being accomplished while demonstrating that doing so was not an electoral liability. The next phase, transitioning to conventional warfare, is the hardest and most risky. Moving too soon, when Brexit forces are still strong enough in the country to triumph in a general election,could undo everything they have accomplished. But time is on their side. To win, all they need to do is continue to block Brexit, and secure an extension in October. Doing so may require bringing down the government, but by December they may well be strong enough to win a general election.
As for the Brexit party it showed strength, but also the limits of the strength of the cause. The Tories need to embrace it because no center-right party has an alternative than to follow center-right voters. But the Brexit party failed to break through among anyone else, and in fact lost soft-euroskeptics from 2014. That provides no reason for the SNP, Northern Irish parties, or Labour to embrace Brexit. Quite the contrary in fact. And in that way, the Brexit Party may have won the European elections, but Brexit lost.