Consensus on Brexit is Impossible but avoiding No Deal is Within Reach
Jennifer Powers (Competere)
The Brexit denouement moves a step closer this week. Yesterday in Parliament saw the latest battle in the decades old Tory civil war over Europe. It threatens to bring down the Government, split the party and redefine the country’s relationship with its nearest neighbours and largest trading partner.
The UK Government’s strategy of committing to leave the EU on 31 October, with or without a deal, was working. The Conservative Party put on 10% in the polls, European leaders made positive noises at the G7 summit and behind the scenes the Commission was relieved to have a UK Prime Minister who finally knew what they wanted.
But the leak of the Government’s plan to prorogue Parliament and start a new Parliamentary session gave the Remain alliance of Labour, Liberal Democrat, Nationalist and Tory rebel MPs time to take control of the Parliamentary order paper and seek to legislate against No Deal.
A General Election is coming. That much is not in doubt. However, we do not yet know the date (though 15 October remains a distinct possibility) or the likely result.
The path to power for the Conservatives lies in being the party of Leave. Since failing to leave the EU on 31 March of this year, England (home to 85% of constituencies) has become a four-party system. This matters for two reasons.
First, it makes predictions in a first-past-the-post electoral system very difficult. Not least because the Brexit and Conservative Parties are largely targeting the same voters. Secondly, the rise of the Brexit Party has taken millions of voters from the Conservatives, forced out the last Prime Minister and driven the Party inexorably toward a clean break Brexit. The Brexit Party poses an existential threat to the Conservative Party and has triggered the final, tumultuous, chapter in the party’s civil war about the EU.
Many have, incorrectly, read the loss of Johnson’s majority as a strategic and tactical error. But whether it is defections to the Liberal Democrats, like Sarah Wollaston and Phillip Lee, or withdrawing the whip from Conservative grandees like Ken Clarke, Nicholas Soames and Philip Hammond, the party’s Brexit realignment is unstoppable, essential for its long-term survival – and nearly complete.
The General Election, when it comes, will be as vicious as it is unpredictable. For the Conservatives, winning a majority of seats is necessary but insufficient. The Prime Minister needs to restore party discipline and stop the attacks from within. Withdrawing the whip from the 21 Conservative MPs who rebelled and barring them from standing as Conservatives, creates the opportunity to select candidates who will back the Prime Minister.
Either side of the election, it remains in everyone’s interest – the UK, Ireland and the wider EU – for there to be a deal. No Withdrawal Agreement with the Backstop intact will pass the House of Commons. There is likely to be a majority in Parliament for – and the Prime Minister has given strong support to – the recommendations of the Prosperity UK Alternative Arrangements Commission. Indeed, the Brady Amendment, which was the basis for the Malthouse Compromise and the Commission’s work, was the only proposed Brexit scenario which has commanded a majority in the House.
The Commission has identified a range of solutions to the Northern Irish border (trade and customs facilitations, processes and techniques that would avoid the need for a hard border after Brexit while protecting the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and respecting the integrity of the Single Market), and drafted Protocols which describe how these Alternative Arrangements could be implemented in different Brexit scenarios. The Commission has also published changes to the Political Declaration and concomitant changes to the Withdrawal Agreement so that a Free Trade Agreement is made explicit as the final resting place for the EU/UK relationship.
Commission Co-Chairs Rt Hon Greg Hands MP and Suella Braverman MP have invited elected representatives from all political parties represented in the Oireachtas, Westminster and Stormont, plus key border stakeholders, to participate in a private conference in Dundalk on 13-14 September. This high-level conference will be an opportunity for politicians from Ireland, Great Britain and Northern Ireland to discuss the proposals, share their questions and concerns, and together explore how we might move forwards from our present situation.
The UK leaving without a deal remains a very real possibility. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Whether this side of a General Election or the other, it is up to the negotiators on both sides to come to an agreement that can pass the House of Commons, while also being acceptable to the European Commission and Parliament, the Irish Government and the people of Northern Ireland.
Consensus on Brexit is impossible but working together to avoid No Deal is within reach.
The views expressed in this article reflect the position of the author and not necessarily the one of the Brexit Institute Blog
Jennifer Powers is an Associate at Competere and a member of the Alternative Arrangements Commission’s technical panel