Political prognostications are a risky business in the United Kingdom. But nonetheless I feel confident in making the case today that the dream of a better Britain, truly open to the world and free from the parochial constraints of the European Commission and single market, is over. To confirm, it is my belief now that the chance of the UK now leaving the EU is exactly zero.
To understand why, it is important to start with three basic but essential assumptions about current British politics:
- The majority of the British parliament has never supported Brexit, and will never support a Brexit under a No Deal scenario,
- There is no longer a majority in the country or Parliament in favour of a Norway option or a reformed customs union agreement, and finally,
- Brexit has overruled party loyalty as the key determinant of voting behaviour in British politics.
Taken together we come to a clear conclusion: The British Parliamentary majority has always favoured, and continues to favour, a solution that allows them to ignore the 2016 referendum outcome. The only problem however, is that parliamentarians are rightly fearful that they will be punished by the electorate if they do not vote to leave. This key mismatch is at the core of the gridlock facing parliament today.
It is tempting, if not irresistible, for commentators to point the finger and lay blame on the other side for the current national mess that is Britain’s Brexit negotiation. But the most honest assessment is to recognise that once David Cameron ruled out the option of Norway+ being an outcome if Britain voted to leave in the 2016 election, there was no middle ground option left. In 2016 there was probably a national majority who could have lived with an adapted Norway or Swiss model for Britain. That is no longer the case. The polarisation and aggression of the two sides, both remain and leave, is so dramatic that only a clear exit from all EU affiliations and the single market, or a total rejection of the referendum outcome is acceptable.
With these three assumptions and the recognition of the partisan nature of the current Brexit debate, it is impossible to conclude that Brexit can occur. The only deal on the table that leave voters will accept, is an outcome that the majority of parliament would rather lose their seats campaigning against than allow to become reality. Indeed, it is no idle threat for Theresa May that pro-remain cabinet ministers today would willingly resign and support a no confidence vote against her and the Conservative Party, if it ensured a labour led coalition that would prevent a no deal outcome.
So how do we convert these political realities into predictions of the future?
First, we start by recognising that a second referendum/peoples vote is a dead end. There is no parliamentary consensus on the questions to be asked, there is no time to pass a bill for a referendum in parliament, organise it and give fair time to all parties before the vote, and, there is no guarantee that remain would even win the vote if it happened (in which case, the country itself would face a constitutional crisis).
Second, we must recognise that the EU has no incentive to extend Article 50 at this time. While the Chancellor and Business Secretary may blindly tell their city chums that it’ll be easy to extend, the reality is that there is little incentive for all 27 EU members to accept a continuation of this Brexit mess when there is no clear sign of what the extension will deliver. As mentioned, Theresa May’s deal is doomed because it represents a compromise, in a political context where neither side is willing to compromise. Thus, faced with no clear path beyond remaining or leaving, EU leaders will conclude (as Germany has done in its letters to the Times and other UK papers last week), that the best chance to reverse Brexit is now. Further, with the threat of a no deal in place, and no UK parliamentary majority for this outcome, the EU sense that this may be the moment to push for the UK to revoke the process, or at the least accept the current deal.
The final piece we consider is that without a deal, Theresa May no longer has any political legitimacy. Her entire identity and political capital stock is invested in her deal, thus in the absence of any support, and recognising that the parliamentary arithmetic can collapse the government and prevent no deal, Theresa May has to conclude that she must resign. It is therefore my belief that before the Article 50 deadline in March 2019, Theresa May will unilaterally revoke Article 50, then resign as the leader of the Conservative Party.
Again, I recognise this is an outcome that is so far off the radar of most commentators that is almost laughable. And yet, it has the strongest logic of any remaining outcome. If Theresa May cannot secure her deal, and is not willing to collapse the government to try and deliver a no deal Brexit, her last play is to claim that she has tried to find a deal but no consensus could be found. Thus, with the Conservative party lacking a majority, and its members unwilling to support the outcome of the 2016 election and their own party manifesto commitment to leave in 2017, revoking Article 50 provides continuity and certainty for families and businesses, while pushing the political question back to the parties.
If this sounds incredibly depressing and frustrating, it should be. The British Public were asked about Brexit twice, at the referendum in 2016 and the general election in 2017. Parliament has opted to ignore that and accordingly, the British public and British democracy will suffer for their choice.