Brexit: Take a step back, breathe, and think
Regular readers of Near Horizon will know where I stand on Brexit, but this post is neither pro nor anti Brexit. Wherever you stand, whatever your political allegiances, if what I’m going to say resonates with you, by all means share it with friends.
The recent resignation of Theresa May, as leader of the Conservative Party, changes very little. It was entirely predictable, ever since her attempt to increase her parliamentary majority in 2017 so spectacularly backfired. We need to ‘wind the clock back’ to find the cause of her downfall: David Cameron, then Conservative Party leader and Prime Minister, enabled a referendum with no threshold for a result: a simple majority of 1 would have been enough to win either way. Changing a Treaty relationship with the EU (or anyone), built up over 40 years, ought to have had, in my view, a 60% threshold in favour of changing the status quo, but there you are, we are where we are.
As a result, a relatively narrow majority to leave the EU (52/48%) when 27% of the electorate failed to vote at all, exposed a faultline in the UK which was not on traditional party lines. Then Cameron resigned and Theresa May took over: a Prime MInister no-one had voted for except her own party. Then she made her first, massive, error of judgement. She invoked Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty which set the clock running to our exit from the EU with no plan in place as to how this would be achieved. Not only that, the Foreign Office, and other Government civil services, had been emasculated, in pursuit of “austerity after the 2008 financial crash, so there were fewer experienced people to support the negotiations.
The following two years have shown just how difficult it was going to be, in spite of some Brexit supporting Conservatives saying it would all be easy, “a walk in the park”. It was especially so with a slender (but workable) majority in the House of Commons, but then Theresa May made her second major miscalculation: she called a General election. Only 13 months after taking office, she nearly lost. She did lose her overall majority and had to ally herself with the Northern Irish Unionists. This was a political disaster, and a disaster for Brexit, because an open land border between the EU, in the shape of The Republic of Ireland, and the UK had been a pillar of the “Good Friday Agreement” which brought an end to 30 years of sectarian violence in the island of Ireland. Part of the Good Friday Agreement was devolution of power to a Northern Ireland Assembly, so-called “Power Sharing” and commitment to keeping the North/South border open. The Northern Ireland Assembly has been moribund for 2 years due to differences between the main players: Sinn Fein (Nationalists allied to the Republic) and The Unionists (committed to staying in the UK.
Then Theresa May made her next blunder. Instead of reaching out across party lines, to negotiate a Brexit “Deal” which could command support of the whole house, she went her own way. She repeatedly lost votes in Parliament, because large numbers of her own party’s MPs didn’t like some aspect of the “deal”. Despite surviving a vote of no confidence earlier this year, she was finally forced to quit by pressure from her own party “Grandees” – not in the national interest but in party interest.
Now we’ve had the EU Parliament elections, elections which the UK should not have needed to participate in, demonstrating yet again how polarised the UK electorate is. A general election now would be another vote on Brexit, not on policy, and yet those candidates for de facto Prime Minister are setting out their stalls with post-Brexit policy promises which are not Conservative party policy, and have not been agreed by their membership or their conference. What is more, those candidates so far declared are, broadly, the same cohort of failed (or inexperienced) politicians who supported Theresa May until the ship was irretrievably sinking. Good PM material in a time of crisis? Whoever takes over as Conservative leader, and as unelected (by us) Prime Minister, the numbers in Parliament haven’t changed, the trenches remain exactly where they were, there is no consensus, and the clock is running down fast. There is no guarantee that an election now would produce a different mix of opinion in Parliament, unless the Brexit Party won a lot of seats and we simply ‘crash out’ of the EU with no deal. Whichever way you look at this, we (the UK) are in a mess. Those jubilant Brexit supporters who, in the wake of the Brexit Party showing in the EU elections, are saying “out means out” and “a clean break ‘no deal’ is fine” cannot answer the simple question: yes, but what about Ireland?