After an autumn of court cases defending parliamentary sovereignty against government executive control of the Brexit process, together with demands for the UK government at least to publish its Brexit strategy in a White Paper, suddenly there is an unlikely calm.
In January, the UK Supreme Court ruled that Westminster should indeed have the final say on triggering Article 50 to start the Brexit talks. Before that, Prime Minister Theresa May finally set out her plans for Brexit in a speech in mid-January. These plans will soon be set out again in a White Paper, something she had refused to do until now. And a two paragraph Bill is on its way through parliament.
Yet, after the successful reassertion of parliamentary sovereignty, it now looks as if May’s briefest of Bills will go through the Commons and Lords in record time, and with none of the many opposition amendments to the Bill likely to pass. Parliament won a role, through the courts, only to be reduced even so to a side-lined spectator. May, barring unforeseen developments, will trigger Article 50 as planned in March.
With the UK still deeply divided over Brexit, the 48% who voted to remain in the EU have little political representation. And the nature of Brexit, and the details of the negotiation, look for now all to be left in Theresa May’s hands. The biggest shift in the UK’s political and economic relations in half a century is underway, while Labour, the main opposition party, is in deep disarray.
Opposition is fractured
There have been many analyses of the more than 17 million UK voters who chose ‘leave’ in the referendum. One clear point is that Conservative voters chose Brexit by a majority as, overwhelmingly, did UKIP voters. But the majority of Labour, LibDem, Green and Scottish National Party (SNP) voters supported staying in the EU.
Yet Labour – faced already with sharp internal divisions as the bulk of its MPs do not support their leader, Jeremy Corbyn – continues to say it will not oppose the triggering of Article 50 and the start of exit talks. Labour – behind the Tories by about 16% in current polls – faces a Brexit conundrum: most of its voters oppose Brexit, but over two-thirds of its constituencies voted for Brexit.
The LibDems are arguing both for the UK to stay in the EU’s single market and for a second referendum on the Brexit deal once negotiated. The SNP have argued for Scotland to get a differentiated deal and stay in the single market if the UK does not – while its leader, Nicola Sturgeon, continues to hesitate on calling a second independence referendum.
Labour, LibDems and SNP have put forward a whole set of amendments to May’s Brexit Bill. But at the same time, Corbyn has insisted on a 3-line whip for Labour MPs to support triggering Article 50, and so to support the Bill, whether Labour amendments are passed or not. A significant number of Labour rebels are expected, but with few rebels on the Tory side (perhaps only former Chancellor Ken Clarke, the last symbol of pro-European Toryism) the government faces no risk of losing the Bill.
Labour’s timidity in arguing against the folly of Brexit is, arguably, supported in the polls. When asked in a YouGov poll whether, in hindsight, the Brexit vote was right or wrong – 52% choose right, 48% wrong, showing almost no shift since the referendum. Yet 75% of Labour voters, in hindsight, think the vote to leave was wrong. But the YouGov poll also shows that half of ‘remain’ voters believe that, given the result, it is right to go ahead with Brexit. The idea of holding a second EU referendum is seen as illegitimate by 59% of voters.
In fact, none of the major party leaders are arguing for a second referendum on the EU – all of them nervous of being seen not to respect the views of the 51.9%. Only the LibDems, with their demand for a second referendum on the deal, come close. But with Labour only asking for a parliamentary vote on the final deal – and Theresa May insisting that the UK would still leave the EU even if parliament rejected the deal – a second referendum for now looks highly unlikely.
Given opposition disarray, the chances of an early general election (before 2020) are unlikely too. But, ironically, Labour looks like gaining little support from its current position. The same YouGov poll shows that, asked about voting intentions for a general election, Labour only comes out ahead of the LibDems if it supports a second referendum, while the LibDems are ahead if Labour sticks to its current policy stance.
Yet Labour, in the midst of its current desperate divisions, does not look like taking a brave stance against Brexit. While Jeremy Corbyn appears to be essentially a Eurosceptic, more pro-EU MPs, such as shadow Brexit minister, Keir Starmer are wary of supporting free movement of people, and so are not even fully behind a soft Brexit of staying in the single market.
Theresa May’s approach of seeking a Canada-style trade deal looks like going ahead – from the UK side – with little opposition. Of course, May hopes she will get various special deals out of the EU27 – from the automotive sector to financial services. But for now hopes of a ‘Canada-plus’ trade deal, rather than a basic Canada-style, free trade in goods, deal, look unlikely in the face of EU27 unanimity that Brexit cannot be a better deal than staying in the EU.
Much could yet change. Companies, not least in the financial sector, are starting to shift staff or headquarters to other EU countries. Investment decisions are being put on hold. The Scottish Government may yet decide before the summer to go ahead with a second independence referendum in 2018. Opinion polls may change – a large anti-Brexit demonstration is planned in London for end March. The actions of President Trump could make Brexit look more unwise – but perhaps only to ‘remain’ voters. The UK is a very divided kingdom, on Brexit and on Trump.
But for now, in the absence of any strong political opposition to Brexit, and the weakness of Labour in particular, Brexit is set to go ahead.
You can download the article in PDF here.