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 resignation of Theresa May, as leader of the Conservative Party (and Prime Minister), changed 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: In 2016 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 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 2 year clock running to our exit from the EU with no plan in place as to how this would be achieved. The Foreign Office, and other Government civil service departments, had been eviscerated in pursuit of “austerity” after the 2008 financial crash. There were fewer experienced people to support the complex negotiations, once it was known what was being negotiated on.
The following two years showed 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, a political disaster, and a disaster for Brexit. 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 over 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” – and especially the status of the so-called “backstop” which sought to square the circle over the EU / UK border – between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland . Despite surviving a vote of no confidence she was finally forced to quit by pressure from her own party “Grandees” – not in the national interest but in party interest.
Then we had the EU Parliament elections, elections which the UK wouldn’t have needed to participate in except the Brexit deadline had been postponed – twice. The results demonstrated yet again how polarised the UK electorate is. The race to replace Theresa May was eventually won by Boris Johnson, voted for by an electorate of 100,000 party members but, almost without exception, those candidates who he faced were from the same cohort of failed (or inexperienced) politicians who supported Theresa May until the ship was irretrievably sinking. A prime choice of PM material in a time of crisis?
A third Brexit deadline, 31 October 2019, was set. Boris Johnson decided that we leave “do or die” but then we had the failed , and illegal, attempt to shut down parliament and force a no-deal Brexit on that date. What is more, parliament forced the passage of a law which is meant to prevent Boris Johnson from taking the UK out of the EU without a deal, and it would appear his tactic is, and has been all along, to push the EU into being “the bad guys” and breaking off negotiations or refusing a further extension to Article 50.
While all this has been going on, the Conservatives have also been trying to goad and bully the opposition parties into calling an early general election. This they don’t want to do because it would create a black hole into which a no-deal Brexit would fall. Boris and his “new” team set about electioneering anyway, promising hundreds of billions of pounds for things which were not Conservative party policy, and had not been agreed by their membership or their conference. However there is no guarantee that an election now, or any time soon, would produce a different mix of opinion in Parliament, unless the Brexit Party won a lot of seats. 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’s showing in the EU elections, were chanting that “out means out” and “a clean break ‘no deal’ is fine” cannot answer the simple question: yes, but what about Ireland?
It would appear this is a question that nobody has been able to answer since 2017 as it remains the spike on which the whole Brexit negotiation has been impaled from day 1. Boris Johnson finally tabled proposals to the EU which, he claimed, were reasonable steps towards compromise on the backstop, but which handed the DUP minority a veto over its future operation. It was never going to fly, and the suspicion is that it was never intended to.