Initial Thoughts on the Brexit Rulling
Reactions to this mornings High Court judgement that Article 50 notification can only be provided by Parliament and not by the Cabinet or Prime Minister alone have reflected the gamut of opinions on the Brexit process itself. Remainers have celebrated the ruling as providing hope that the UK will not in fact exit the European Union, or that if it does, it will do so on terms that limit the fallout economically and socially. They now hope that the Pro-Remain majority of MPs in the Commons will either defy the public will, or insist on remaining in the single market. By contrast, the Leave side has expressed outrage, far from surprising given their campaign was based around the slogan of "taking back control." The reality is that the ruling is probably good for Britain's prospects of remaining in the EU, but a political disaster for those who support such a position. There are a couple reasons for that.
Theresa May's Position in the Conservative Party Requires Her to Push Ahead with Hard Brexit
The critical position is now occupied by Prime Minister Theresa May and her government. Ostensibly they insisted that the royal prerogative could be used to give notification of Article 50, and that there was no need to consult Parliament, and their initial remarks have echoed those of Leave campaigners. This is hardly a surprise. While quietly backing the Remain side in the spring, May as Prime Minister has sounded a line even harder than most of the ostensible leaders of the Leave campaign, advocating a "Hard Brexit" in which Britain ends freedom of movement for EU nationals, even at the cost of leaving the single market. There has been extensive debate over whether or not May was a Leaver pretending to support the Remain side, as David Cameron's former chief of staff alleged, or a Remainer who has embraced Leave against her better instincts, as has been hinted by leaked recordings of a speech May gave to Goldman Sachs before the referendum. The reality is likely neither, May's embrace of Hard Brexit probably has less to with the merits of the policy, and more to do with the politics. May, who worked her way up the party apparatus, was kept on the periphery of power, both within the cabinet, and within the wider media world. It was only the unique circumstances of Brexit, in which the establishment were either crippled by having been on the wrong side of the cultural divide(David Cameron, George Osborne) or compromised by a seemingly opportunistic embrace of Brexit(Boris Johnson, Michael Gove) that she and her inner circle could rise to the pinnacle of power. Having done so, neither she, nor her inner circle, Chief of Staff Nick Timothy and Fiona, have forgotten the forces that were arraigned against them or the degree of luck they needed to beat them. As such, their chief goal has been consolidating power. The lesson of the last 25 years is that challenges within the Conservative party come from the right. A discontented left can leak to the media and spin Westminster plots, but the actual sentiments of MPs and the threat of retribution from the grassroots means that in any showdown, they will prove a paper army. The one exception was the fall of Margaret Thatcher, and that likely could not be repeated today given the greater influence of the membership and grassroots. As a consequence, the decision May made was to place herself and her government on the right side of the sentiment of the overwhelming majority of Tory members, who either backed Brexit, or if they had opposed it, now saw it in the aftermath as a victory of the Right over the Left which needed to be defended at all costs. The goal of this policy, which was evident at the Party conference, was to render the Tory Brexit right irrelevant by placing the Government at their head, while at the same time portraying Remainers, who only a few months earlier had been No 10 loyalists, as disloyal traitors. It was not for lack of time that George Osborne did not attend the conference. He would hardly have been able to speak for five minutes without being heckled off state.
May's advantage over Osborne did not depend solely on his having backed remain. Had it, then he, like her, could have accepted it post-referendum in a spirit of party unity, and then proceeded to fight for his vision of a "soft Brexit." That is why May could not merely make Brexit is Brexit the party's position, because it would leave room for a loyal opposition. For all the complaints that May has been vague, she has been anything but that. She has made clear that controlling immigration is the single most important, uncompromising issue at stake, and thereby made clear that not just any Brexit, but "Hard Brexit" is the conservative position. In doing so, she has led the party to adopt a position that is unacceptable to her liberal rivals, and thereby cast them in the role of "rebels".
May's future actions have to be considered in this light. Her opposition to a Parliamentary vote on Article 50 probably had less to do with the fact that she would lose it, than that the Tory MPs advocating it were making themselves appear to be at once sore losers, and disloyal traitors, and she was determined to make them pay a political price for it. This they will end up paying several times. First, they will be pay for the court decision, and the perception it went around the back of the referendum results. Secondly, they will now have to go on record either for or against Article 50.
While there is nominally a Remain majority in the Commons, it is unlikely that May either will abandon Brexit, or water it down to secure passage. To do so would be to abandon not her policy, but the entire political strategy of her government, and to throw itself onto the mercy of its enemies to the left, while losing the support of the right. May knows that in any Brexit related split she will have the membership and activists on her side, and therefore she has every incentive to push onwards with Article 50 even after a vote by forcing an early election.
May is Also on the Right Side of the Electorate
If Theresa May's strategy politically was to embrace Hard Brexit for the purposes of maintaining power within the Conservative party, embracing Brexit as a whole has served her purposes in the country at large. May could not help but note that while the Conservatives won 37% of the vote in 2015, UKIP managed to win an additional 14%. This was a result of the strategy of the modernizers, David Cameron and George Osborne, to abandon the right in order to play for the middle. This strategy was at best designed to work against Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, Even there, it performed questionably. Much of the center went to the Liberal Democrats rather than to the Conservatives in 2010. After that year, the Labour party made a mockery of the strategy by moving to the Left, first under Ed Miliband, then after 2015 under Jeremy Corbyn. In the fall of 2015, Osborne showed signs of wanting to follow, making overtures to Blairites which indicated that he wanted to move even further to the center.
May concluded, likely before the referendum, but definitively after it, that having watched Labour and the Liberal Democrats destroy themselves, the most important thing to do was to maintain the unity of the Conservative party, which required the unity of the British right. Her strategy then has been to assume that not only due the centrists won over by the modernizers number relatively few, but that they are concentrated in the wrong places. Analysis indicated that while Brexit won only 52-48, it carried 424 out of 574 seats in England and Wales.
If that was not enough, May realized the advantages that lay with the Conservatives being the only party with a position on Article 50. In a scenario in which the House of Commons were to vote down Article 50 next spring, or worse the Lords were, and an early election were to be called, what precisely would Labour stand for? Would Labour promise to abandon Brexit entirely if it won, opening it to mass defections in the North? Would it make the entire election about Soft v. Hard Brexit, making it a referendum on immigration from Eastern Europe? Or would it have no position, in which case there would be only one viable party to be entrusted with government.
To abandon Brexit, or to water it down to suit Remainers would be to assume all of these political problems which are currently the province of Labour and Ex-Cameronite Tories. As such, May will almost certainly have a vote, and will almost certainly respond to a defeat with a dissolution.
But wait, what about the Fixed Term Parliaments Act? Doesn't it require two thirds for an early election? Well, yes, but the politics are a different matter in practice. For one thing, while it allows a government to resign, if no alternative can be found to replace it, a new election occurs anyway. While in theory a grand coalition of Osborne Tories, Labour, and the SNP could govern, it would be united only by Brexit, and even that would be questionable. Corbyn's own position on it is ambiguous, and the coalition would stretch from those who would want Soft Brexit to those who would want a second referendum or to throw the whole thing out entirely. Any and all of them would end up alienating almost everyone, and face political oblivion whenever the next election was held.
The more likely scenario is that May would get her two thirds majority because refusing it would be next to impossible. Brexit has a popular mandate, and for Labour to vote it down on the basis that it was ambiguous, and then refuse to allow the voters to weigh in clearly on what they meant would be the height of hypocrisy, and quite likely politically fatal. Add to that the fact that Corbyn himself has said repeatedly that May should call a new election, and it would be very hard to refuse her a dissolution following the defeat of Article 50. This would be especially true if the government ended up in confrontation with the unelected Lords.
Corbyn Has An Incentive to Work With May Here
For all that he comes from the opposite side of the political spectrum, Jeremy Corbyn's position resembles May's. He also faces, or believes he faces, an internal opposition that is weak on the ground, but ensconced in elite institutions. Among MPs, the media, PR firms and consultancy, and the amorphous liberal middle class of London.While Corbyn has been pegged as ambiguous on the EU, and a secret supporter of Leave, I think it is more likely he is similar to May in that while he is indifferent to the EU, he recognizes that the Remain campaign represents his enemies. As such, the long-term weakening and destruction of the cosmopolitan middle class left is something he would welcome. Hard Brexit may or may not help the North, but the North wants it. By contrast, it would not only greatly upset his foes in London, but cripple their social and economic base. The PR firms and consultancy might well pack up shop and leave, and even short of that, the cultural revolution May is embarked on and the revival of nationalism it entails would also serve the interests of the sort of Labour party Corbyn wants quite well. As such, he does not exactly want to see her fail.
That said, he likely cannot be seen to be openly helping her succeed. He will almost certainly not whip for Article 50. But he might well make it a free vote, forcing Labour MPs to own it, and thereby setting them up for deselection.
What Sort of Brexit?
This picture likely brings us to an election in the late spring of 2017, a Tory landslide, and a Conservative majority of 100. At that point May could go head with Article 50 with nothing standing in her way, But will she? The interesting aspect to this entire government has been the way it has let politics drive the process. In position of a constitutional mandate to create a new Britain, May will be a legal dictator for five years. Brexit can be done in year 2, 3, or even 5. Other moves to ensure a Tory majority, boundary review, education reform, remaking the BBC, all can come first and be used to whip up nationalist sentiment among the Brexit group.
Viktor Orban in Hungary has managed to do effectively whatever he wants while remaining in the EU. The easiest option for the UK has never been to leave the EU, but to remain within it while de facto ignoring rules it does not like. Yes May nominally will have to recognize freedom of movement. But how many European migrants are going to live in areas outside of London with an upsurge of xenophobia, especially if the government turns a blind eye? Or even endorses low-level harassment such as limiting language resources, refusing to punish local authorities and government officials who blatantly discriminate on welfare, or landlords who refuse to let? The government, if it sets its mind to it, can probably drive well over half the European citizens currently in Britain out without formally leaving the EU or the single market, simply by making their lives terrible enough. Brussels can scream, but ultimately there are no mechanisms for expelling a country.
Such an approach would ensure a climate of confrontation with the EU, in which rushing an exit would actually be seen as a European position, and delaying the formal process until Britain decided to do so "on its own terms" a matter of patriotism.
The government will never formally abandon Brexit, or even Hard Brexit after an election triumph. But it might well lose any sense of urgency such that the process is delayed, and every effort made to extract maximal advantage politically from the issue.