The Seven Circles of Brexit
Ian Cooper (DCU Brexit Institute)
Last Friday, it seemed as though Theresa May had secured her full cabinet’s agreement on a common negotiating position that would set the UK on a glidepath towards a soft Brexit. Days later this “Chequers agreement” was thrown into doubt by the resignation of her Brexit secretary, David Davis, and her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, both of whom were swiftly replaced.
It is well known that what makes Brexit so difficult is that May is searching for a compromise that will be acceptable not only to the British people but the EU as well. However, this vastly understates the scale and complexity of the problem, which has many levels.
In order to make Brexit happen, the prime minister must contend with seven political groupings of varying size, radiating outward in concentric circles, each of which has a say over the outcome. Each of these groupings must give either active consent or tacit acquiescence at some point in the process. But crucially, each circle has its own set of rules, which constrains its ability to give its consent, which in turn constrains the possibilities for a final agreement.
A guided journey through these “seven circles of Brexit,” ranging from the smallest (11 persons) to the largest (512 million persons) provides an insight into the difficulties which must be addressed in order to navigate Brexit to its final destination.
1. Brexit war cabinet
Number of persons: 11
Operative Rule: Informal balance, consensus
After becoming Prime Minister, Theresa May created a cabinet subcommittee – known as the “Brexit war cabinet,” apparently modelled on Churchill’s War Cabinet. It is made up of 11 senior ministers drawn from the full cabinet. Even though it is small and informal, it has been the key body in the formulation of the UK’s Brexit policy. From the beginning its composition was finely balanced between Leavers and Remainers, and this has been maintained even as the membership has changed and expanded. For months, division in the Brexit war cabinet – five Brexiteers, five Remainers, and the PM herself holding the decisive 11th vote – has prevented it from agreeing on a clear policy direction, as evidenced by its continued squabbling over two competing customs models.
Number of persons: 29
Operative Rule: Collective responsibility
The full cabinet is made up of 23 senior ministers, plus six junior ministers who normally attend its meetings. May was able in part to outmanoeuvre the Brexiteers at Chequers by holding a meeting of the full cabinet which, unlike the Brexit war cabinet, has a clear majority of Remain supporters. The principle of collective responsibility dictates that ministers may disagree in private but, once a common policy is agreed, they must publicly defend (or refrain from attacking) that policy. David Cameron suspended collective responsibility during the referendum campaign, allowing seven ministers to break away and campaign for Leave. Since the referendum, the principle has continued to be brazenly flouted, with some ministers – most notoriously, Johnson – openly criticizing the inchoate government policy. What May did at Chequers was to explicitly reassert collective responsibility, so that ministers who cannot support the policy going forward must resign. Davis and Johnson did, but other leading Brexiteers – e.g. Michael Gove and Liam Fox – are still in.
3. Tory Caucus
Number of persons: 316
Operative Rule: Confidence vote
In order to continue as Prime Minister, May must maintain the confidence of a majority of the 316 Conservative MPs in the House of Commons. At any time, 15% of those MPs (48 in the current parliament) can trigger a confidence vote in their leader. If the majority votes against her, she must resign, and a leadership contest ensues in which she cannot stand as a candidate. However, if the majority supports her, she remains in office and for one year she is immune from another such challenge. While the Brexiteers have enough votes to trigger a confidence vote – there are 60 MPs in the pro-Brexit European Research Group (ERG) – it is doubtful that they would win. If May were to see off such a challenge now, her position as party leader would be secure until after the UK is due to leave the EU on 29 March 2019. For this reason, the Brexiteers appear to prefer to keep the threat of a confidence vote in reserve.
4. Governing Majority
Number of persons: 326
Operative Rule: Confidence and supply agreement
Because the Conservatives hold a minority of seats in the House of Commons, they rely on the 10-member Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to maintain their governing majority, not by governing together in a coalition but rather through a confidence and supply agreement. The DUP strongly rejects any plan that would imply any separation of Northern Ireland from Great Britain. This impedes May’s ability to keep her promises that (1) Britain will leave the Single Market and the Customs Union and (2) there will not be a hard border on the island of Ireland.
Number of persons: 650
Operative Rule: Majority vote
Whatever deal is struck with the EU must be passed through the House of Commons by majority vote. (The House of Lords may propose amendments but cannot veto the deal.) This is complicated by the fact that there are potential defectors at both ends of the Conservative party, both among hard Brexiters and rebel Remainers, and it is unclear what the other parties will do. It is often said that there is no majority in parliament for a hard Brexit, but for that matter it is unclear whether any variety of Brexit has majority support. The ongoing fight over whether parliament can retain a “meaningful vote” over the final outcome is precisely over whether the parliamentary majority can retain control of the Brexit process, especially in the case of a “no-deal” scenario.
6. The United Kingdom
Number of persons: 66 million
Operative Rule: Respect for will of the people
Since 51.9% of the UK electorate voted to leave the EU, Brexit is the “will of the people” and Theresa May’s government is duty-bound to respect it. The problem, of course, is that the vote was ambiguous and is open to widely differing interpretations. May initially interpreted it as necessitating a hard Brexit, setting out intractable red lines – leaving the Single Market, Customs Union and ECJ jurisdiction – which she has only recently begun to soften. She must expect her party to be punished by the electorate if she takes actions that contradict the expressed will of the people; but of course they will also be punished for taking actions that are harmful to the common good.
7. The European Union
Number of persons: 512 million
Operative rule: Article 50 (and many more)
Finally, of course, the UK is still part of the EU – a political union that includes 512 million people and 28 member states. There are three elements to a Brexit deal – a withdrawal agreement, a transition deal and a framework for future partnership (WTF). According to the terms of Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union, a deal for the orderly withdrawal of the UK from the EU must be approved by a qualified majority in the Council and by the European Parliament. However, any future agreement between the EU and the UK – which will by then be a third country – will require unanimous approval and ratification by the remaining 27 member states. And whether or not this can be achieved will depend on how much the UK is willing to accept the rest of the EU’s rules – of which there are many thousands, and the EU is constantly making new ones.
In conclusion: if there are seven circles of Brexit, then Theresa May has just successfully passed through the second circle by securing the agreement of her full cabinet at Chequers. It remains to be seen whether the newly published White Paper can move her further on her journey. Obviously, there is still a long road ahead.
Ian Cooper is a Research Fellow at the DCU Brexit Institute. He has previously held positions at the European University Institute, the University of Cambridge, and the University of Oslo.