Explaining Brexit to an American friend

At the end of a long conversation about everything else today an American friend I was meeting asked me, ‘and what’s Brexit about?’

This was our conversation. And yes, these are my opinions, which are biased (I am primarily for Remain, despite being Eurosceptic), and are based on my interpretations of what few facts we still cling on to. My general answer to all of his questions is that after the last month, nothing is predictable and anything could happen. I thought, wrongly, that the UK would vote to Remain in the EU. Once that certainty was out of the window, it has opened up the way to nothing being certain and anything being possible.

He asked me:

Will Theresa May trigger Article 50?

I think she has three options:

1. Trigger it soon, anger the c.60% of the population who did not vote to Leave, and cause economic and social chaos.

2. Don’t trigger it, angering the c.30% of the population who voted to Leave, and cause economic and social chaos.

3. Prevaricate, dragging things out until either there’s an election, the EU collapses anyway, or the ensuing recession makes Brexit so unpopular she gets away with doing nothing.

Will the UK leave the EU?

Currently I think that May will trigger Article 50 and begin a negotiation that will culminate in a deal. The deal is so significant to the future of the country that she’ll have to take it to the people, possibly in the form of a General Election, as it seems unlikely anyone will ever want to call a referendum here again.

I think that deal will have such a watered down version of what the Leave voters wanted they’ll be furious and reject it. Meanwhile it will be so stupid for the country that the Remain voters will also reject it. If that happens, then we go back to how things were and all carry on as if nothing happened.

Another angle is that lawyers, the House of Lords, and other checks and balances in our democracy get involved and slow it all down dramatically, leading to my third scenario again.

The problem with this scenario is it means 1–2 years of uncertainty, during which it’s increasingly clear the country will slip into recession, and businesses will leave the UK.

Why did Cameron call a referendum to leave if he didn’t want to leave?

Basically, the Conservative party have always had an internal battle raging over Europe. Cameron needed to silence that fight so he could unite the party around winning the last election, so he could stay Prime Minister. So he pacified the Eurosceptics in his party by promising them a referendum. It seems likely he didn’t think he would win that election outright, so didn’t think he would have to call the referendum. In my opinion it was a short sighted strategy aimed at securing power, without any thinking about how it would play out. He lost his job as a result.

How come Boris Johnson seemed to be pro-Europe when he was Mayor then ran on the Leave ticket?

Boris has always wanted to be Prime Minister. It’s possible he thought he could join the Leave campaign, lose the referendum, then ride in to save a splintered Conservative party, and become Prime Minister. He miscalculated, and as the photos of him and Gove on the morning after the vote show, they had not expected or planned to win. So neither Cameron nor Johnson actually expected Leave to win this referendum, despite the former calling it and the latter campaigning for it. This was mainly about the two of them wanting to be Prime Minister.

Gove & Johnson hardly celebrating a victory (Credit: BBC)

Cameron decided to take Johnson down with him by saying that whoever became PM had to trigger Article 50 straight away, trapping Johnson into being damned either way he went. He then stepped out of the leadership race, realising that whoever won and became PM would be taking on a poisoned chalice, faced with having either to trigger Article 50 and cause a recession, or not trigger it and anger all the pro-Leave Conservatives and voters. He stepped out expecting to be able to come back in later, when whoever won had been ruined by this and was out of a job.

So why on earth did May make him Foreign Secretary?

The thinking is because it keeps him out of the way. He is now in the spotlight and therefore cannot manoeuvre in the shadows. He has to behave himself in this role, and also can be blamed as part of the team engineering Brexit should it fail. It seems mad, like putting a pyromaniac in charge of a match factory, but weirdly it makes sense.

But May says ‘Brexit means Brexit.’

Yes, but right now all the European leaders are playing a game of poker. Disregard anything anyone says as they are all saying what they need to say in order to play their hand, and they’re all holding different cards to the ones they want others to think they have.

The European leaders said the UK has to trigger Article 50 and leave soon. This because their main focus is to appear tough to put any other countries off holding a referendum. I think that France and Germany realise that the biggest risk to the EU now is a domino effect of similar referenda causing the whole EU to collapse. The benefit of slamming the UK is not just to scare others, but also to try to attract London’s banking industry to Frankfurt or Paris. So everyone has multiple, contradictory agendas, and is saying what needs to be said rather than what they actually think. None of what they’re saying really makes sense and is therefore a load of bluffing… game of poker.

But surely the referendum outcome means the UK has to leave?

Well no. The referendum was not legally binding, it was advisory. The government is not legally obliged to act on it. But there is a strong argument that they are morally obliged to. The real question is whether May can trigger Article 50 herself, or would have to put it to Parliament. There are several fascinating legal challenges in the courts now arguing this point. It is far from clear and is the subject of debate amongst some of the greatest legal minds around.

Legality aside, I am interested in the position of MPs. We have a representative democracy, which means we vote MPs into Parliament to act on our behalf, and in our best interest. That is the reason something this complicated should never have been put directly to the people in a referendum. (The question of Brexit is massively complex and as I’ve written about before has huge and multi-layered implications. Nobody really understands it, but we employ our MPs to spend the time and effort becoming expert enough to vote on this for us.)

So an MP now has a conflict. If it’s clear that Brexit will damage the economy and the country, they would be morally obliged to vote against it in Parliament as they should act in the Country’s best interest. Yet at the same time, you could argue they are morally obliged to vote to Leave to respect the will of the people, as expressed in the referendum. That, again, is why referenda have no place in representative democracies. You either ask Parliament to act for you, or you don’t. It will be interesting to see how that plays out.

Equally, if May choses to use what’s called Royal Prerogative to trigger Article 50 without Parliament, that may cause a rebellion in Parliament, against her and the government. I like that our democracy has all these checks and balances, but again it will be interesting to see how they start to work in this unique situation.

Why did people in cities that have received a lot of EU money vote to Leave the EU?

This referendum was only partly about the EU. It seems clear now it was much more to do with growing global political trends, also playing out in the US. A large part of the UK have not benefitted from economic growth or globalisation, and do not feel the EU is relevant to them. The EU clearly failed to communicate its purpose to these people, even if it gave them lots of money, or that money failed to touch their lives in a meaningful way. What is probably happening here on a wider scale, is the slow failure and collapse of the EU. MEPs don’t hold ‘surgeries’ — UK MPs sit and meet their constituents regularly, but MEPs don’t, despite apparently many UK MEPs wanting to. So there is very little direct link between the EU and most people.

Immigration has been handled clumsily by governments and the EU, and has become a major issue even in countries that have not received any of the recent immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa, or have taken a tiny number. Immigration is one of those fear-based topics populist politicians can use to win votes regardless of the underlying reality. Basically people are angry with the Establishment and this was a chance to kick it.

(I must add that there were also Leave voters who have very well thought through and justified reasons for wanting to leave the EU, but they are probably the minority of Leave voters.)

So what will happen next?

In this new world, anything could happen. There are so many moving parts and so many surprises on a daily basis. The unknowns are things like a random terrorist attacks, Trump, Putin, economic shocks that reverberate (eg. Greece, Italy), so it’s really hard to predict now. However, my latest and current take is that the UK will go into recession, which will challenge people’s views on the wisdom of Brexit. Scotland may try again to leave the UK (and who can blame them). The UK is already starting to negotiate unilateral trade deals around the world. It could go a number of ways:

1. Once May is more confident it may work, she triggers Article 50. A very watered down version of Brexit is agreed with the EU, and we leave the EU. The UK will endure a recession, major businesses will leave London, but over time the UK will reinvent itself in some way and muddle on. It will probably cease to be as relevant globally.

2. May and the EU leaders carry on playing a big game, but in the background lack any real interest in the UK leaving. The UK falls into recession, and gradually many Leave voters change their mind, as is already happening. May lets Parliament, and then an election undermine her attempts to Leave, and eventually nothing happens. The UK is a poorer and less credible place but she survives without bearing the burden in history of having pulled the UK out of the EU, and Scotland out of the UK.

3. There are the beginnings of a new political landscape taking shape in the UK. One of these moves could change the game. If Corbyn wins the Labour leadership, then a new Centrist party could splinter off from both the Labour and Conservative parties and run in an election on a Remain ticket. Or Labour could implode leaving no effective opposition to May. She could win the next election with a landslide by default, changing her mandate and sense of security.

4. Something really weird happens: Trump becomes President, Putin invades Latvia, Le Pen wins in France, Italy or Greece’s economy collapse, etc. And then a whole other set of scenarios play out.

The new certainty is uncertainty. Plan around the plan changing.