by Frank Schnittger
Mon Jan 7th, 2019 at 02:20:34 PM EST
Yours truly and Luis de Sousa have been using the Charge of the Light Brigade as a metaphor for the UK's brainless charge for Brexit. But perhaps it is Boris Johnson himself who came up with the more appropriate metaphor when he said that the UK was going to make "a Titanic Success of Brexit". The metaphor is all the more apt as the Titanic had been built in the famous Harland and Wolff shipyard - a fact that is now commemorated in the Titanic centre in Belfast. The DUP has also been leading the charge towards a Brexit which could well jeopardize the very union between N. Ireland and Great Britain they so claim to cherish.
It is now almost two months since Theresa May agreed her deal with the EU Council and very little has changed or moved on in the meantime as the great ship of state sails inexorably on towards a hard Brexit on 29th. March. If the 117 Tory MPs who voted no-confidence in Theresa May's leadership combine with the DUP, May's deal could well go down by over 200 votes in the House of Commons vote on January 15th.
No prime minister in history would have been subjected to such an emphatic defeat on such a major issue and survived, and yet Theresa May might fight on. Brexiteer Tory MPs effectively handed May a 12 month stay of execution when they precipitated an ill-judged no confidence motion in December and the DUP have said they will continue to vote Confidence in the Government (while threatening to vote down almost all else) for fear of precipitating a general election which Jeremy Corbyn might well win.
So we have a lame duck prime minister at the helm set on a course headed for a hard Brexit and no mechanism to change course, or have we?
Opinion polls have been showing consistent and increasing majorities saying the original referendum result was wrong, that a second referendum should be held and that Remain would win such a vote. But there has as yet been no sea change (see what I did there?) in public attitudes and the margin in favour of Remain has ranged from 3% to 18% in various polls carried out over the past two months. An average margin of 10% for Remain may seem decisive, but the numbers are quite variable and opinion polling has gotten a bad rap in recent years.
What is striking about the polling where three options are presented is that a No deal Brexit has consistently out polled May's negotiated deal. In the most recent You Gov Poll of 25,000 voters only 22% support May's deal and that rises to only 28% among Leave voters. Remain would win by 63% to 37% if a second referendum offered a choice between Remain and May's deal, but by a lesser but still decisive 58% to 42% if the choice is between Remain and No deal.
What seems clear from these numbers and the Parliamentary arithmetic is that May's deal is dead in the water (ok I'll stop the maritime metaphors now!) and no amount of "clarification" or tweaking around the edges can rescue it. The EU seem to have accepted as much and have offered only a minimalist "Exchange of letters" to provide greater clarity. No major renegotiation will be attempted because nothing the EU is likely to want to give can match the expectations raised by the Brexiteer side.
So what are May's options? The honourable course, suggested by all historical and constitutional precedent is that she should resign. Her policy has failed abjectly to deliver a result acceptable either to the UK parliament or people. But unless the DUP or hard Brexiteers are prepared to risk a general election, there is no way she can be forced out now, as Tory party rules forbid another leadership challenge for 12 months after last month's heave.
Her difficulty is that her resignation now would almost certainly result in the election of a hard Brexiteer as Tory leader and prime minister. Tory party members, who have the right to elect the party leader support a hard no deal Brexit by 57% to 23% for May's deal, with only 15% supporting Remain. Much has been made of how much Corbyn is out of sync with his Remain supporting membership, but it is the Tory membership (average age c. 70) which is increasingly at odds with the population as a whole.
So if May resigns, the outcome will almost certainly be the election of a Boris Johnson style hard Brexiteer as Tory leader and Prime Minister and a hard, no deal Brexit - something to which May seems genuinely opposed. So what other option does she have? She has agreed to meet tomorrow with the over 200 MPs who wrote to her urging her to rule out the no deal option. Boris Johnson, meanwhile, has embraced the no deal option as most closely resembling what the people voted for. This must be news to the many Leave voters who were told that negotiating a good deal with the EU "would be the easiest deal in history".
So a resounding defeat for May's deal in the House of Commons could have the effect of taking her deal off the table and providing the UK with a clear choice between No deal and Remain. I don't believe this government has the authority to make such a choice without popular legitimization, and so a second referendum seems to be the only option other than resignation open to her. But she cannot embrace it unless and until her own negotiated deal has been decisively rejected.
Corbyn will no doubt table a vote of no confidence in the government when May's deal is defeated, but all the indications are that the DUP and Brexiteers will unite behind the government to prevent a general election. It is only after that point that both Corbyn and May will be free to embrace the second referendum option and the latest You Gov poll shows that Labour's vote could decline to an historic low if he fails to support an alternative to May's deal.
The stars are all not yet aligned and there is still plenty of scope for the UK to crash out of the EU in a cliff edge No Deal Brexit either through arrogance, inertia or mishap. But a heavy Commons defeat could take May's deal off the table and clarify the choice facing May, the House of Commons, and the peoples of the UK as a whole. For some it will seem like a national humiliation to call the whole thing off, and for others a merciful release. Either way most people want the issue resolved once and for all sooner rather than later.
May could have to ask the European Council for an extension to the A.50 deadline to enable a second referendum take place but all the indications are the EU Council would provide the necessary unanimous agreement, and might well welcome the opportunity to show some flexibility towards UK demands. Any second referendum campaign is likely to be divisive in the UK, and many will accuse May of being a Remainer who never truly embraced the Brexit cause and perhaps negotiated a deliberately bad deal in order to force a Remain outcome.
But as regular readers here will know, the EU was never going to offer a Brexit deal even remotely as good as full membership and so it shouldn't have been a surprise that any negotiated deal would fall far short of the inflated "have cake and eat it" expectations raised by the Leave campaign. Even if the entire Brexit saga serves only to heighten awareness in the UK of what the EU actually does, as well as giving the EU a much needed opportunity to show solidarity, cohesion and relative competence, then all may not have been in vain.
Not a lot of good came from the sinking of the Titanic, except perhaps a reduction in the hubris of the empire which created it. The establishment which had for so long used the EU as a scapegoat for all manner decisions they had led or assented to could finally be hoist on its own petard. Time for some Brexiteers to walk the plank...