The Last Throw Of The Dice?
On 15 February 2003 more than a million people marched in London against the UK’s participation in the invasion of Iraq. Prime Minister Blair ignored them and joined President Bush in what became the most calamitous foreign policy decision since the Suez crisis of 1956.
On 23 March 2019 a similar number of people walked from Park Lane in London to the Palace of Westminster in support of a second referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union (EU). Prime Minister May indicated that their action would have no effect on the decision to leave the EU, made in the referendum of 23 June 2016. She is not on their side. And that had been made abundantly clear in her televised address to the nation three days earlier.
May’s frustration at the impasse over her withdrawal agreement, otherwise known as the deal, was apparent in her demeanour and the tone of her address. The address, in which she blamed MPs for the lengthy delay in getting her deal through Parliament, received a hostile reception from MPs on all sides. For them her action was the final straw. She, not her backbenchers, was the problem. Her address was unprecedented in modern times. May was effectively telling the people that their representatives in parliament were simply not up to the job. It’s little wonder that voters have such a low opinion of MPs when the Prime Minister appears to agree with them, with the right-wing Europhobe press in support.
The deal had been heavily defeated on two occasions and May’s efforts to improve it had been unsuccessful. Hemmed in by the EU on one side and her own Eurosceptic backbenchers on the other, she was looking defeat in the face once more. In desperation, she said that the deal would only be put to a third meaningful vote if it had a chance of success. This is unlikely, given that the deal locks the UK in a customs union, the bete noir of the hard brexiteers, until the backstop has been resolved. This could be a matter of years, not months.
Theresa May’s insistence that she wants what is best for the country disguises her primary aim of preventing the Tory party from falling apart. Although highly respected for her resilience, many of her MPs say that in order to leave the EU with an agreed deal, she has to go. However, the $64,000 question is, how would a change of leader improve the chances of getting the deal through Parliament and at the same time bring the Tory party together? There are willing contenders for the leadership but no agreement among Tory MPs as to who should lead.
The only viable option is for May to soldier on and make a last attempt to win support for the deal. She could do this in spite of Speaker Bercow’s reference to a law of 1604 (according to Erskine May) that the same (unchanged) proposition cannot be brought to the House of Commons in the same parliamentary session. In order to do so it must be a different deal.
The EU has told May that two options are available. If the deal falls a third time then on 12 April the UK can leave without a deal; have a longer extension; or revoke Article 50. (Although on 13 March MPs voted by a majority of 43 against leaving without a deal, it was not a legally binding vote). Alternatively, if the deal is passed, the UK will have until 22 May, the day before elections to the European Parliament, to prepare the legal arrangements for leaving the EU. A deadline after that date would involve the UK in the European Parliament elections. Effectively acknowledging the UK’s membership of the EU. And May has set her face determinedly against this.
Where does Labour stand on all this? Its 2018 conference adopted a series of options to address the issues arising from the result of the 2016 referendum. One of which, failing the holding of a general election, was to press the case for a second referendum. In recent weeks Corbyn has appeared to give some support for this, providing the deal was credible and acceptable to the party. But Labour is in a weak moral position here. The great majority of its MPs voted to trigger Article 50 which set the UK on a path to leave the EU, as did most of the members of The Independent Group, now criticising Corbyn for what they say is his failure to lead Labour in support of a ‘People’s Vote’.
After much toing and froing between London and Brussels with little change to the deal Theresa May accepted it wouldn’t command a majority in the House of Commons. Following the passing of the Letwin/Grieve amendment on 25 March MPs took control of the Brexit process through a series of ‘indicative votes’. These involve debating and voting on a range of options. But as the options to her deal are non-binding, she has stated that she will refuse to implement any option but her own. However, a vote in favour of one or another would have real political significance. Labour’s best bet is to support a ‘soft Brexit’. This would distance the party from the Tories and may have a reasonable chance of success.
MPs may feel that they are taking back control by asserting the sovereignty of parliament. But out in the country there is an increasing view that the political system is broken. A feeling that the two party system of political conflict no longer serves the interests of the people. This is an understandable position to hold, given the political chaos in the House of Commons following the result of the June 2016 referendum. Voters, mostly in traditional Labour seats, have felt left behind for decades, and believe that the political system doesn’t work for them. Austerity in recent years under Coalition and Tory governments has simply piled extra pain on their already blighted lives. This feeling of desperation and helplessness was one of a number of factors that led to the referendum result.
When Brexit has been finally resolved, and we have until 22 May and no later to leave the EU, discussions will begin on the UK’s future political and economic relationship with the EU. And that may prove to be as problematic as Brexit itself.
Footnote: The editorial was written before the indicative votes were taken and before Theresa May announced that she would stand down as Prime Minister if her deal was passed by the House of Commons.