There were two big developments yesterday in the continuing drama of Britain’s (possible) withdrawal from the European Union.
The one that got most of the headlines was that prime minister Theresa May has opted not to submit her withdrawal agreement to a vote in the House of Commons this week, acknowledging that it faced certain defeat. Instead, she will hold further talks with Brussels, and parliament will probably not return to the subject until the new year.
But the other move is equally important. The European Court of Justice ruled that, provided it follows its own constitutional procedures, Britain can unilaterally revoke its Article 50 notice of leaving the EU at any time up until a withdrawal agreement enters into force or the two-year notice period expires on 29 March (whichever comes first).
So Britain can change its mind without getting the consent of the other EU members. Otherwise, as the court said, it could “be forced to leave the European Union against its will.”
But it can’t use this as a negotiating ploy: if it revokes the notice, it stays in, period. “The purpose of that revocation is to confirm the EU membership of the Member State concerned under terms that are unchanged as regards its status as a Member State, and that revocation brings the withdrawal procedure to an end.”
So Britain has been thrown a lifeline; if in the next three months it can develop a political consensus for remaining in the EU, it can bring this whole sorry saga to a close. But the prospect of consensus, on that or anything else, seems as far away as ever.
May’s decision to walk away from tonight’s promised vote has added further uncertainty to what was already a maze of unknowns. Her agreement would have been voted down, and absent some unexpected new intervention, any lightly revised version will meet the same fate – and light revisions, at most, are all that the other EU leaders will agree to.
So then what happens? There have been various attempts to explain the different options; Katy Balls in (of all places) the Spectator made a good concise effort the other day. But they tend to mix up means and ends, or ultimate outcomes (membership or not, and what sort) with intermediate ones (election, referendum, leadership change, etc.).
Let’s instead start by just looking at the possible end states: where Britain could end up in its relationship with the EU. It seems to me there are five basic options.
- Remain. Britain revokes its notice of withdrawal and stays in the EU.
- Norway/EFTA. A status like Norway’s or Switzerland’s, where Britain leaves the EU but remains in the customs union and the single market and accepts free movement of people.
- Soft Brexit. May’s agreement or something like it; leaving the single market but retaining a close relationship with the EU, remaining in the customs union at least temporarily.
- Hard Brexit. Leaving the single market and the customs union immediately, telling Northern Ireland to go fend for itself.
- No deal. Same as option 4, but with no agreement to provide any sort of smooth transition.
If MPs were to vote their honest preferences, there is probably a majority for 1., or at least very close to it. Clearly there is nowhere near a majority for anything else. Substantial groups support each of 3. and 4., and a small number would support 2. Almost no-one wants 5.; it’s simply the default that will happen if no other decision can be made.
The only way a majority can be constructed for any option (except, possibly, 1.) is by tactical voting – MPs voting for a less-preferred alternative in the hope of preventing something that by their lights is even worse.
That sort of thing happens in legislatures all the time. But it seems unlikely here. The supporters of 1., the remainers, have little reason to move because they sense that the momentum is on their side, and the ECJ ruling has opened a pathway towards their goal.
The hard Brexiters, on the other hand, although it might be rational for them to shift from 4. to 3. as the only way of saving Brexit, will not do so for the simple reason that they are not rational people – and also because the default, 5., is close enough to their preference to make it in their interest to stymie any alternative decision.
Moreover, the largest single voting bloc, the loyal Labour MPs, although they are all over the place as regards their preferences for Brexit (but mostly 1. or 2.), have a common tactical interest in frustrating anything that the government tries to do, in the hope of forcing a general election that would bring them to power.
It’s hard to see how the Conservative Party can survive this. The only thing that keeps May in the leadership is that the forces on either side of her are reasonably evenly balanced. But if her leadership collapses under the weight of the Brexit contradictions (not to mention its own incompetence), then the party is likely to split down the middle.
Nor is Labour in much better a situation. Its divisions are less obvious at the moment, because the prospect of winning government produces a certain cohesiveness. But they are nonetheless very deep, not just on Brexit but on fundamental questions about what sort of party Labour is supposed to be.
For some ideas about where this could all go, have a read of Stephen Davies’s new essay for the Cato Institute on the global realignment of politics. I don’t agree with everything he says, but I think he’s absolutely right about the basic idea: that the divide between nationalist and cosmopolitan outlooks is going to become the primary axis on which politics is organised, and that divide runs through rather than between most of our existing parties.
But realignment takes time, and with the Brexit clock running out in three and a half months, time is one thing that Britain is short on.