Why Theresa May will call BrexitRef2.
Theresa May might not realize it yet, but the result of the general election makes it more or less inevitable that she will call a second referendum on Brexit.
Like her successor, the Prime Minister has of course protested that the 2016 was the first, last and only time the British people would have a say in Brexit. According to May, a second Brexit referendum is absolutely impossible, it will not happen. Just like she said that there would be no early general election and that her government would be strong and stable.
The reason a second referendum is inevitable is simple: All the alternatives are worse for May and worse for her party. Past experience has shown self interest has been a far better predictor of May’s actions than her promises. The only thing to be decided is what the question shall be. Since a second referendum on the question of Leave or Remain has been ruled out, it is most likely that the question in the second referendum will be Accept or Reject.
Naked into the negotiating chamber
The starting point for any sensible discussion of the outcome of Brexit is to recognize that a minimum of 70% of MPs will consider the result of the negotiations to be an unmitigated disaster for UK interests. In the global economy, nations face a choice: They can have sovereignty or they can have prosperity, both is not possible.
Margaret Thatcher used to rail against Labour plans to give up nuclear weapons by stating that Britain would go naked into the negotiating chamber, an attack that May rather bizarrely resurrected in the general election. There is of course no question that Corbyn’s ministers would have gone ‘naked and alone’ into the Brexit negotiations because that is exactly the position David Davis is in. And that is exactly the situation any minister attempting to negotiate an exit under Article 50 will find themselves in. The rules were written by politicians who wanted to make the process of leaving the EU as unattractive as they possibly could.
Like Trump, Davis has written a business book in which he boasts about his ability to negotiate a good deal and describes all his tactics. Like Trump he believes that negotiations are won by the superior will, a proposition that like most statements found in business books does more to stroke the ego of the reader than impart useful advice. Michael Barnier, the EU lead negotiator showed how impressed he was by his opponent’s superior will by presenting him with a walking stick, i.e. a crutch in the exchange of gifts which traditionally proceeds such discussions.
Having spent twenty five years negotiating technical standards in international organizations, I find the approach of Davis and his team embarrassing rather than intimidating. Beating your chest when the other side knows they hold all the cards is only going to invite the other side to humiliate you.
As far as UK trade is concerned, the very most optimistic outcome of the negotiations would be a result in which the UK agreed to accept all EU regulations and the jurisdiction of its courts in return for continued access to the Single Market, albeit on less favorable terms. This amounts to a serious loss of trade rights with less sovereignty than before. While the UK is in the EU, it has access to all the decision making apparatus and if essential rights are threatened, a veto.
In the fevered imaginations of the Brexiters it is possible for the UK to regain its ‘lost’ sovereignty while British industry prospers. In the real world, a world in which Boris Johnson and his Bullingdon club chums have never lived, the alternative to a ‘soft’ Brexit is five million unemployed.
There are three possible outcomes to the negotiations, none of which will please more than a small minority of MPs. A Hard Brexit would only be acceptable to the minority of Leave MPs who number 150 at most. Support for no deal would be even smaller and a soft Brexit is the soggy compromise that pleases absolutely nobody.
Soft Brexit is only preferable as an alternative to Hard Brexit. Which is of course the reason why the Leave campaign promised a fluffy unicorn Brexit in which those nasty stinky foreigners would jolly well give little England everything it asked for demanding nothing in return.
Greater love hath no man,
…than he lay down his friends for his political life.
Supporters of Brexit are confident that it will happen because the leaders of the Conservative and Labour parties wish it to happen and will exert every effort to ensure that it does. The fact that May and Corbyn both campaigned for Remain is ignored. Instead we are told that Corbyn can be absolutely relied on to scuttle all and any plans to derail Brexit or force another referendum.
Being a politician is a difficult and mostly thankless profession. It takes a very particular type of person to climb the greasy pole. If the only consideration a politician took in deciding how to vote was their honest opinion of what was best for their country, there would have never have been a Brexit referendum in the first place. That there was is due to the fact that Members of Parliament don’t get elected in the first place unless they can persuade a constituency party to adopt them as a candidate and then win more votes than the other candidates fighting for their seat.
Electors vote for candidates based on three principal factors, tribal loyalty, what the candidate promises to do and the results of what the candidate did in the past. And here comes the catch, electors have absolutely no qualms when it comes to voting out candidates who did exactly what they asked.
Parliamentary democracy is a civil skill that took the UK several centuries to learn. Direct democracy is a different civic skill that the UK has negligible experience of. There have been only three referendums covering the whole of the UK and only one that did not deliver a two thirds majority for the result those who called it desired.
At this point, MPs are caught on the horns of a dilemma. If they vote to sabotage Brexit they will be hammered for failing to respect the outcome of a democratic referendum. But if Brexit does take place, voters will blame the MPs who voted for it as if there had been no referendum at all. The way politicians resolve such dilemmas is to avoid making a decision until they are forced to.
To work out how MPs are likely to vote when a decision must be made, we must consider five factors:
- Where they believe the national interest lies.
- How their constituency party will react to their vote.
- How the voters in their constituency will react to their vote.
- How they believe their vote will affect the chances of their party winning the next general election.
- How their vote will affect their prospects of holding ministerial office.
The last factor is of course the reason many people think Boris Johnson supported the Leave camp in the first place. After losing the independence referendum, the SNP had romped home to victory in every Scottish seat in the following general election. Had the Leave campaign lost, David Cameron would have been more or less obliged to reward Johnson and Gove with prominent positions in his cabinet in the interests of party unity.
The political calculus for party leaders is rather simpler. Wherever they imagine the national interest lies, the first last and only consideration of a party leader must be to obtain the power necessary to achieve it. For Corbyn, a radical, this has meant making a series of what would be reckless gambles had he had any other path to power open to him. Backing the Article 50 vote in the commons established a position that would allow Labour to campaign on both sides of a post Brexit general election and the commons votes leading up to it. Corbyn’s strategy did not minimize the risk of Brexit being completed and put the very survival of the Labour party at stake. But it did leave May with little option but to call the early general election that has cost her majority.
Reading the entrails of goats
One of the major problems with a parliamentary democracy is that the interpretation of laws by the courts can often diverge sharply from the intent of the legislature. The same is even more true of referenda where the interpretation of the result is invariably different after the vote is held.
What did Britons vote for? Did they vote for hard Brexit or soft? Did they vote to throw off the shackles of unelected Eurocrats or to spend £350 million a week more on the NHS? Did they vote to stick two fingers up to Brussels or to the Tory government that called the referendum?
The cynicism and dishonesty of the Leave campaign was total. While they may have obtained consent, they obtained a deliberately misinformed consent which amounts to no consent at all.
Leave fought the referendum promising the best of all Brexits to anyone willing to listen and positioning their campaign as a repudiation of Cameron’s austerity policies. They know that in a second referendum, both these advantages would swing to the Remain side.
The idea of holding a second referendum if the first was close was floated even before the polls opened. Only at that time the idea was being proposed by none other that Nigel Farage, leader of the UKIP party who thought he was going to lose. Since then, all mention of holding a second referendum has been studiously avoided for the simple reason that Remain has no desire to hold one until they are almost certain that they will win.
Nobody but Jeremy Corbyn knows the reasons for his campaign tactics in the first referendum and the general election. What is clear is that he was dealt a weak hand but has played it extraordinarily well. Leave campaigners believe Brexit is the first last and only concern of critics of the EU. They believe Corbyn has shown himself to be a covert supporter of Brexit who will happily destroy the Labour party to cut ties with Europe.
Of course anyone who has actually observed Corbyn realizes that his first last and only concern is the destruction of all things Tory and their replacement with a socialist paradise, the precise definition of which is To Be Determined. The idea that Corbyn will engage in Machiavellian maneuverings to ensure a Tory Brexit is completed is ridiculous.
Corbyn’s 2017 manifesto makes clear that Labour will not campaign to remain in the EU in a second referendum. Corbyn will campaign to reject all things Tory; Tory austerity, Tory deregulation and Tory Brexit. Corbyn does not need to persuade people that they were wrong to vote for Leave, all he needs to do is to persuade them that they were betrayed by the Tory party like they will always be betrayed. Because putting their boot on the face of the working man and grinding it into the dirt is what the Tory party stands for, what it has always stood for and always will.
Corbyn’s first last and best chance of walking into 10 Downing Street as Prime Minister is to win a victory for the Reject side in the second referendum and then harness the forces of atavistic tribalism in the general election that will inevitably follow regardless of the outcome.
A coalition of chaos.
In the aftermath of the 2017 election the UK faces set of circumstances that are sui generis. May is pledged to implement the mandate of the 2016 referendum but was denied a mandate by that same electorate in the 2017 general election.
In normal circumstances, a UK minority government is a brief affair as both the government and the opposition are likely to convince themselves that they would improve their position with another election. As Tony Benn observed writing about his experience of a minority government, they hold office but not power.
But these are anything but normal circumstances as the normal political dynamics are frozen until the Brexit negotiations conclude. Like Scott of the Antarctic, May is trapped in a position where she can’t go forward, can’t go back and cannot remain where she is.
Whatever the terms, a clear majority of May’s own party will find them unacceptable. At this point the dynamics make a second referendum on accepting or rejecting the terms more or less inevitable.
The election result and the fixed term parliaments act give Corbyn first mover advantage. As leader of the opposition, Corbyn’s job is to oppose government policy and proposals. He has the right to propose a vote of no confidence at any time of his choosing. Before the fixed term parliaments act, the result of the government losing a confidence vote would be an immediate general election. Now the Queen would be obliged to call on Corbyn to form a new government at which point he would have 14 days to win a confidence motion of his own or go to the country as the sitting Prime Minister seeking election.
Since a solid 80% of the parliamentary Labour party is solidly remain, Corbyn knows that there is not the slightest possibility that he could negotiate a set of terms that would satisfy his party. May’s government will be a caretaker government at best. The party has already deleted its 2017 manifesto from its Web site, only to repost it after realizing that there are no end of copies on mirror sites.
Corbyn has the advantage but he doesn’t have unlimited room for maneuver. Once the Brexit terms are known, a commons vote on a second referendum to accept or reject them is inevitable. 30 Tory MPs have already written an open letter to May that makes clear that they oppose Brexit and will use all legitimate means to oppose it.
Whipping reluctant Labour MPs to vote to accept the result of a national referendum is one thing. Whipping any party against holding a referendum to determine the popular will when it is genuinely in doubt is quite another. Corbyn’s best chance of walking into number 10 as Prime minister is to back the vote for a second referendum, campaign for the Reject side in the referendum and call a vote of no confidence the minute that the polls close.
It is of course possible that the Leave campaigners are correct and Corbyn secretly hates the EU so much that he is prepared to break his party to ensure a Brexit on Tory terms. But even if so, there is no way that May could trust Corbyn to follow through knowing that it would destroy his party. And since May cannot rely on Corbyn to follow through and block a second referendum, it follows that she must propose the referendum herself when the final terms for Brexit are announced.
Once it is 80% certain that a vote on a second referendum will succeed, Corbyn must call for one. Once it is 80% certain that Corbyn will succeed in calling for one, May must call for one first.
That May must call for a second referendum will become increasingly obvious over the next 12 months. The only real questions are what the precise wording of the question will be and how it will be presented. Having rejected the possibility of a second referendum on the question of Leave or Remain, May would have little option but to accept the terms Accept or Reject. The commons Remain majority will in any case modify the terms of the referendum to give themselves the best chance to win it.
Calling a second referendum won’t help May’s chances of survival as party leader. At this point, nothing can. May’s fate was sealed when she lost the general election. All that May can do now is to ensure that the men who visited Brexit on the party gain nothing by it. Forcing Johnson, Davis and Gove to campaign for the terms they negotiated with the EU and being crushed in the result is the best way she can revenge themselves on their petty ambitions. After that, the Tory party can choose its own path. It can reunite around a new Remain leader or the membership can double down on leave by electing Jacob Rees-Mogg as leader.