UK’s Brexit Maze
Many MPs appreciate the complications while voters necessarily do not.
LONDON : On Tuesday, 22 October 2019, Parliament voted twice within half an hour on the Withdrawal Agreement Bill to leave the European Union. While there was a majority on the “principle” of Brexit, just 15 minutes later MPs stopped the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, leaving the EU by his arbitrary deadline of 31 October. Brexit postponed. Parliament had wrested control of the agenda from the government, along with the freedom to amend the bill, including a possible confirmatory People’s Vote. Boris Johnson’s Brexit government does not want a confirmatory referendum, fearing it might overturn the result of the June 2016 referendum, in which the UK voted to leave.
What the MPs told the Prime Minister in those two votes, an old colleague put it this way –
“Yes, maybe, but we would need more time and probably some changes.” The government wanted Parliament to pass the entire bill within three days.
So, the United Kingdom was back to the mechanism to request the EU for an extension of the Article 50 notification until 31 January 2020, as required by a law known as the Benn Act. The extension has just been granted. The Prime Minister, meanwhile, wants an election. However, in the middle of Parliament’s current five-year term, it requires a two-thirds majority to hold an early general election. In recent days, cracks have opened up in the opposition, with the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Nationalists in Parliament pushing for a December election, but on a date which the Prime Minister does not find advantageous to him. The country is therefore in an immensely complicated constitutional and legal maze. To try to understand what is going on, a step-by-step look at events is necessary.
Just three days before, in a rare sitting on Saturday, 19 October – the first in 37 years – the House of Commons had passed an opposition amendment to the Prime Minister’s motion on leaving the EU. The amendment said: “… this House has considered the matter but withholds approval unless and until implementing legislation is passed.”
It was remarkable. The amendment was introduced by a veteran MP and former Conservative minister, Oliver Letwin, who had been expelled with 20 other lawmakers from the governing party. Opposition MPs, with few exceptions, supported him. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, a flamboyant, overconfident politician, had introduced his plan to force through Brexit legislation in three days despite being in a minority of minus 43 in Parliament. He asserted that it was the executive’s prerogative to run the country; MPs were there to facilitate it. Johnson’s calculation was that the divided opposition would never unite. He had misjudged.
Against the government’s wishes, the Letwin amendment won. MPs supporting it argued that they needed more time to go through nearly 600 pages of the draft Brexit agreement in a matter of hours after they were given the document. They wanted to avoid a no-deal exit that would be very disruptive, economically and logistically, for an island state surrounded by the European Union. And the Prime Minister’s “do or die” deadline of 31 October was too tight to be realistic.
So, the United Kingdom is in the midst of a mighty battle for sovereignty between Parliament and the executive, and Parliament has been winning – so far. As MPs debated on 19 October, huge crowds took part in London streets in a “People’s March” against Brexit. German TV estimated that there were as many as 2.2 million protestors.
Even before that day, Prime Minister Johnson’s government had suffered six defeats in Parliament. When he tried to shut down Parliament, he lost in the UK Supreme Court (11-0) and in Scotland’s highest court. The case remains open in the Scottish court until, as the judge said, it was clear that the obligations under the legislation had been “complied with in full”.
Boris Johnson continues to insist he would not resign even though he is 43 MPs short of a majority in the House of Common. His government is dysfunctional, because it cannot get its legislative programme through. Anger, frustration and a deepening sense of crisis exist in the country. A number of seemingly unanswerable questions arise. How does Boris Johnson’s minority government survive? Can the opposition in Parliament not bring a no-confidence motion in his government and force it out? Why can new elections not take place? Why Parliament seems indecisive and reluctant to go for a clear break from the European Union?
Such questions look simple, but answers are very complicated. Many MPs appreciate the complications while voters necessarily do not.
The origins of this Brexit crisis go back to 2014 when Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative Party suffered significant setbacks in the European Parliamentary elections, coming third behind the Brexiteers of the UK Independence Party and the main opposition Labour Party. At the time, Cameron was in coalition with the pro-EU Liberal Democrats. The coalition’s economic austerity was increasingly unpopular. Welfare cuts, low wage rises and falling living standards were causing strong resentment against immigrants from the other 27 European Union countries taking advantage of the EU’s freedom of movement and legally present in the United Kingdom to work, study and live – as a million or more UK citizens were legally resident in other EU member-states.
To shore up anti-EU Conservative supporters who had abandoned the party in large numbers, Cameron proposed a referendum if the Conservative Party won an outright majority in the next general election due in 2015. Until then, he knew that his coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, would veto any such plan. Cameron was overconfident of winning the public vote to stay in the EU, and that, he thought, would be the end of his problems. The Conservative Party, somewhat unexpectedly, won the 2015 election by a small but clear majority. Cameron proceeded to hold an advisory, nonbinding referendum in June 2016, as he had promised in his manifesto.
His decision backfired fantastically. Despite Cameron’s optimism, the electorate voted to leave the European Union by a small margin. It was the end of his political career. The Leave campaign was greatly emboldened. And the crisis has since been intensifying. Cameron’s successor as prime minister, Theresa May, has come and gone.
Just as the governing party, opposition parties are not very functional either when it comes to removing Johnson’s minority government. The biggest opposition party is Labour, but its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is seen as a hard left politician who has tolerated antisemitism. It is an accusation he denies. But many in his own and other parties refuse to accept Corbyn as an alternative prime minister, and he cannot command a majority in Parliament. Many opposition MPs are also against an early election for three main reasons. First, Boris Johnson is already making it a choice of People vs. Parliament. Second, those who represent constituencies which voted to leave the EU may lose their seats. And third, a general election is much more than delivering Brexit, because it is about electing a government that must work to deliver a wider policy agenda.
So, an opposition that cannot agree on a strategy to remove the current Prime Minister and replace him with one of its own would rather let a dysfunctional minority government stay in office, and see it make mistakes almost every day. A phrase often heard from opponents is “Let them stew in their own juice”. Granting Boris Johnson an early election is not most of his opponents’ preference.
Predictions are risky. But even if the United Kingdom does leave the European Union, the next stage will be even longer and more complicated. The UK will need to decide what kind of economic, political and strategic relationship it should have with the rest of Europe that surrounds it. New free trade agreements will have to be negotiated with the EU and the rest of the world. What will it mean? Five years, ten years or more splitting joint assets and negotiating a new trading relationship with the EU.
Competing pressures from different nations to change standards, laws and regulations, including, for example, chlorinated chicken from the United States. And demands for preferential treatment on visas for citizens of other countries like India. As the Atlantic magazine recently commented, “Brexit is forever”.
Deepak Tripathi, PhD, is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland.