I’m back from Australia, but alas recovering from a bout of flu combined with tooth trouble. What with Christmas coming, normal service will not resume for a while. But I can’t help myself from commenting on Britain’s Brexit drama.
It is striking that so much of what happens next depends on just two individuals, the Prime Minister, Theresa May, and the Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn. This is not a comforting observation.
First, and most obvious, is Mrs May. She is in charge of the Government – and when it comes to taking the initiative, the Government has the upper hand over Parliament, even though the latter is technically sovereign. Parliament has tried to wrest some control over the process, with need for a “meaningful vote”, but Mrs May has easily outmanoeuvred it. She alone dictates when the vote will take place, and simply postponed it a month when things weren’t going her way. She still needs parliamentary consent though, which leaves a deadlock.
Meanwhile, Mrs May has fended off an ill-advised attempt from within her parliamentary party to unseat her as their leader. There’s nothing much they can do now to remove her. She’s in complete control.
How does Mrs May choose to use this power? She clearly wants the deal she has negotiated with the EU to be ratified, allowing the UK to formally leave on 29 March, and to get on with the next phase of the negotiations about the trading relationship with minimal disruption to commerce and daily life. She interprets this, fairly enough, as fulfilling both the mandate given by the 2016 referendum to parliament, and the election promises she made in 2017. What if she can’t get that consent? She says that there are two alternatives which are No Deal or No Brexit. But she has not expanded on what exactly she means by this, except to rule out a further referendum to decide between two or more of the options.
The closer we get to No Deal the more horrifically it looms, completely giving the lie to Mrs May’s earlier mantra that “No deal is better than a bad deal”. She consider this to be a realistic option – but it is still what happens if parliament does not consent to an alternative. So what does she mean by “No Brexit”? If she rules out a referendum then that means a unilateral decision by parliament to revoke the Article 50 Notice to leave the EU. This has been shown to be legally feasible, but only if it is a complete revocation, and not shenanigans to simply resubmit the notice a bit later. That idea looks horrific too. Even the most ardent Remainers feel that Article 50 should only be revoked if a further referendum endorses it.
This is highly unsatisfactory, but Mrs May is the person in charge and we must play to her rules, even if she doesn’t explain fully what they are. Only one person has the power to break the deadlock: Mr Corbyn. The most obvious way would be for him to throw his weight behind Mrs May’s deal, mobilising enough Labour MPs to neutralise Tory rebels and the DUP. It would be very easy to argue that this is in the national interest, and Labour committed to Brexit in the 2017 election. However, he has spent so much energy rubbishing the deal that the effect on his authority would be catastrophic.
There is another way. As Leader of the Opposition he can table a confidence motion allowing parliament to bring the government down, either leading to a new government or an election. This is what he says he wants to do, to force an election, which he hopes Labour would win. But it is hard to see how he would win an election at this point in the process, without a clear policy on Brexit of his own. Even a deeply split Tory party should be able to see him off. Anyway, if he won he would not have time to renegotiate Mrs May’s deal, so it does little to resolve matters.
But there is a bigger problem with using a confidence motion: neither the Tory rebels nor the DUP would support it. They do not want an election on Mr Corbyn’s terms, or, heaven forbid, risk a Corbyn-led Labour government.
So what else could Mr Corbyn do? He could put forward a confidence motion with plan to replace the current government with a cross-party one with the single aim of resolving the Brexit deadlock through a referendum. This would require cooperation with Tory rebels (though different ones from the hard Brexiteers that are causing Mrs May her main problem). I think this idea has been referred to as a government of “national unity”, though it is hard to see that it would do anything but promote yet more national discord, even if that may be necessary.
That would leave the rather tricky question of who would lead it. It couldn’t be a party leader. It would help to bring as many parties on board as possible: the SNP for sure, but the Lib Dems, Greens and Plaid Cymru too. There would also need to be clarity on where it would end and how. It would need to resign pretty much s soon as Brexit formally happened, or Article 50 was revoked. Would the Conservatives and the DUP be given another chance after that? Or would there be an election, with the Conservatives irretrievably split?
This final option is a very long shot, but these are desperate times as the prospect of No Deal looms. But the real problem is that I don’t think that Mr Corbyn has the vision or ability to pull it off, even if he wanted t, which is doubtful. And without Mr Corbyn it cannot work.
Which leaves us with Mrs. May’s grim brinkmanship. At a time needing great, visionary and persuasive leaders, Britain’s don’t measure up.