Brexit drags UK into a political stasis

By Mike Cormack Source:Global Times Published: 2019/1/20 17:58:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

On January 15, the UK's House of Commons voted overwhelmingly against the British government's Brexit agreement. By 432 votes to 202, the deal forged by Theresa May was rejected. This included 170 members of the Prime Minister's own Conservative party. Given that there are just 317 Tory MPs altogether, this was a defeat of historical, even unprecedented proportions.

By all historical conventions, such an overwhelming defeat would mean the fall of the government and a general election, but these are not normal times. Brexit has split Cabinet, the government, the Opposition, parliament, and public opinion. Had the Labour party opposed Brexit, and campaigned on that basis, then it would have been impossible for the government to continue. But Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has maintained a policy of evasion throughout the entire process.

Although he was a member of the "Better In" campaign during the referendum, his participation was vanishingly small. Even as the March 29 deadline for the UK to leave the EU nears, Labour policy has been remarkably murky. Corbyn has refused to clarify Labour's position on Brexit, instead saying that he opposed May's deal because he claimed he could negotiate a better deal. (The EU has repeatedly said it will not renegotiate). 

Following the government's defeat, Corbyn tabled a vote of no confidence in the government. This was accepted and held on January 16 after a debate. A motion of confidence is a classic "circle the wagons" tactic for a government after a major defeat, in order to show that it still has authority by virtue of its majority, if nothing else.

May and her Democratic Unionist party (DUP) allies have a slender majority in the House of Commons, so there was little drama to the proceedings, the outcome in little doubt. Winning by 325 votes to 309 was a mere confirmation of parliamentary arithmetic.

The debates, however, were of some interest. Labour's deputy leader Tom Watson delivered a master class of gentle, probing savagery, saying of May: "No-one doubts her determination, which is generally an admirable quality. But misapplied it can be toxic. And the cruellest truth of all is that she doesn't possess the necessary skills, the political skills, the empathy, the ability and most crucially the policy to lead this country any longer." It was a devastating thrust of a stiletto in a chamber where noise and hectoring have for too long become commonplace.

Subsequently, Environment Secretary Michael Gove delivered a speech of similar quality but of a completely different style. He thanked the speakers for their speeches and then gleefully reminded the Commons of their weak points. With great verve he then defended the Conservative government's record before going on to savage Corbyn as being unfit to be prime minister. He may not have changed anyone's mind, but it was great theatre.

The result of the vote was then announced. The government was safe by 16 votes. May then stood up to say that she would seek to have meetings with the leaders of the other parties and senior parliamentarians that very evening, in order to find a way to get Brexit through the Commons. Corbyn then replied, in his tetchy, haranguing way. He refused to attend any such meetings unless the possibility of a no-deal Brexit was withdrawn. This he did knowing that the government is pretending that it is a realistic option for bargaining and rhetorical purposes. It was his way of immediately demonstrating that he refused any responsibility for Brexit.

Not long after, reports came in of the meetings with the smaller parties - the leaders of the Scottish and Welsh nationalists and the Liberal Democrats. All reported that May was refusing to budge on any of her positions. She would not delay the Brexit departure date. She would not shift on staying in the Customs Union or in the Single Market. She would not rule out a no-deal Brexit and would not agree to a "People's Vote" referendum on leaving the EU. It was as though the vote the day before had not brutally rejected her.

So where does that leave things? In one sense, nothing has changed. May still leads the government, the Withdrawal Deal with the EU is the only one on the table and the clock is ticking towards the March 29 departure date. But the two days' events have, I think, shifted the political calculus. There is no way to get the deal through the Commons: the Conservatives are too split and Labour will not play ball.

As the departure date nears - it is just over two months away - without an agreement in place, there will have to be a delay. Despite the siren voices of the hard Brexiteers, a no-deal departure would be an utter calamity. There will then have to be a general election. As with the Scottish independence referendum, people having voted want the matter settled. It is notable that for all the turmoil and turbulence that the Conservatives retain a lead in the polls. If the Tories win by enough to submerge the die-hard MPs opposed to the deal, then a deal will go ahead. Otherwise there would be another year or so of stasis, and probably another general election.

All of which predicts political stasis for the UK until the matter is settled. This is a grim prognosis, but there hasn't been a real constitutional crisis for over a century, when the House of Lords and the House of Commons fought for political supremacy in 1910. That too took two general elections to resolve. Most people would feel glad if Brexit could be resolved as simply.

The author has been a freelance journalist in China since 2008. Follow him on Twitter at @bucketoftongues.

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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