Following the news that Theresa May is to step down as Prime Minister after failing to implement her deal, the questions are now moving to who will replace her and what that will mean for the defining issue of the day – Brexit.
Of course, the correct answer to the question is – who cares? Because, sadly or otherwise, it doesn’t particularly matter.
Most of the Conservative Party – and all of those capable of winning a leadership election – are committed to delivering on Brexit. That means pursuing one of the following paths:
- Continuing with the deal Theresa May negotiated with the EU, and trying – with fresh energy and persuasion – to get it through parliament. The advantage of this from a Conservative point of view is that the hard work has already been done, the document is already there and ready to implement, and the EU has said that this deal is really the only one in town. On the other hand, there’s nothing to suggest any other leader will have any better success at winning over other parties (or Conservative backbenchers) who all dislike the deal on its (de)merits and not because of the messenger.
- Negotiating another deal. There’s huge support among Conservative ranks for doing this, albeit there are a variety of often contradictory proposals doing the rounds. Unfortunately for the party, however, there is no chance the EU will go for this. They’ve already spent lots of time and energy negotiating with the UK Government on this. They’ve come up with the best possible plan – and within the limited spectrum of hard Brexit options, it really does seem to be the best one. Any attempt to renegotiate will be batted away, and any conversation about the matter will be wasted breath. I suppose the EU27 would jump at a soft Brexit, but there’s no chance a Conservative government will strive for this.
- Pursue a No Deal Brexit. This could be surprisingly popular within the party, and perhaps a bigger proportion of the wider population (at least the Leave voting half) than we might fear. And while the EU has said it does not want to see No Deal, it is bracing itself for it should that happen.
Now, as we reflect on these three options, we should bear in mind that No Deal is the default: if none of these three options are chosen and agreed consciously, we will leave the EU with no deal at all, threatening movement of people and goods, limiting trade, and creating huge tariffs on our imports and exports to the EU. You don’t need to choose this for it to happen, you simply need to do nothing to avoid it.
It’s like an out of control car speeding towards a cliff edge. You don’t need to choose for the car to go over. It’s going to do so if you do nothing, so any conscious choice you make must be for an alternative course of action. Whether you wish for this disaster is irrelevant: what matters is what plan you have to avoid it.
So for that reason, it doesn’t matter who the Conservative leader – and thus our Prime Minister – is.
Of course, there are other options out there, such as another extension to the negotiating period, but – while I suspect the EU would prefer this to a No Deal – the choices above are still the same. Article 50 remains triggered, and this process must be resolved somehow.
The only other avenue, then, is to try to stop Brexit happening. That means revoking Article 50 which triggered the process originally. Yes there is lots of conversation about having a referendum on the deal, but given that it is so unpopular in Parliament, and its architect (from the UK side) is about to leave the job of Prime Minister, it seems odd that we should even be discussing this discredited deal even in a popular referendum.
That leaves revocation: directly cancelling Brexit by withdrawing the trigger of Article 50. And I believe this to be a morally and politically superior plan to putting the matter to the people in a confirmatory referendum first.
If you think about it, a referendum on the deal validates the process so far – essentially saying “okay, so the debate and discussion has brought us to this point – what do you think?” And inherent in that is the idea that the debate and discussion has been legitimate. When, on the contrary, it absolutely has not been.
The process of Article 50’s triggering and implementation has been flawed, for three main reasons.
- Two of the four constituent parts of the UK – Northern Ireland and Scotland – did not vote Leave. They are being taken out against their will. In a referendum with simple plurality, you might argue this doesn’t matter – we voted as the UK, we leave as the UK. But this willfully ignores the nature of the debate in 2014 when Scotland was told that the UK was a partnership, and that Scotland was a valued and respected part of the union which it was urged to lead, not leave. To then have its views ignored is a betrayal of this message and undermines the United Kingdom actually much more than any secessionist sentiment does, coming as it did from the heart of the UK Government itself. Then we have the impact on the Northern Ireland peace process of its views being ignored, though that’s something I’m not qualified to talk about. In short, the UK is in constitutional disarray, and it is invalid that it should – in the midst of that – ignore the will of two of its parts.
- There was no sense of what “Leave” actually meant, as I argued in this earlier post. Partly this was a product of the poor quality of debate in the referendum, partly it was the very short length of time that people had to explore the issues, and partly it was due to the Leave camp not having a clear vision. But mostly responsibility lies with the UK Government at the time, led by David Cameron, which did not have any vision for the change it was giving the people the chance to consider.
- Most importantly, however, the referendum was based on illegal activity, with a number of criminal investigations into aspects of the campaign’s contact underway (as I pointed out here). For a referendum to be based on illegal activity isn’t an argument for the result to be taken with a pinch of salt – it’s an irreversible case for the question to not even have been put, and for the result of it (whatever it was) to be declared void.
That is why Article 50 must be revoked.
But, depressingly, it won’t be. It could only come about – as far as I can make out – through one of three paths.
- A new Conservative Prime Minister proactively deciding to revoke it. This is, given the commitment by most of the party to somehow honouring the result, impossible.
- A new Conservative Prime Minister revoking it only as a last resort under considerable pressure from the EU, as a result of the failure to negotiate anything new. This is something most PMs, and the party as a whole, would never countenance.
- A General Election being held before October’s deadline in which a pro-revoke government comes into power. Given Jeremy Corbyn’s dithering on Brexit, this is an almost unimaginable capitulation from the most likely alternative leader, even under pressure from potential supporters of a minority Labour government like the LibDems or SNP.
With none of these options really viable, that leaves us with no real sense that Brexit can be stopped. It’s a catastrophic failure of government, and one which – as I might dwell on in a future post – will surely be the topic of a major public inquiry in years to come.
And if revocation can’t happen, that leaves us with just one option: No Deal.
Which is, frankly, terrifying, and leaves Scotland with only one realistic option.