Comment

15.04.19

Brexit's systemic fallout

Source: PSE April/May 2019

The third in a trilogy of Brexit articles for PSE, Chris Painter, Professor Emeritus at Birmingham City University, considers the wider constitutional and political issues arising from its mishandling.

No end in sight

Additional concessions from Brussels on the November 2018 divorce withdrawal agreement and accompanying political declaration, a demand of the ultra-Brexit Conservative faction along with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists, proved hard to achieve. Ostensibly, the flashpoint was concern the UK might indefinitely be trapped by institutional arrangements designed to prevent the return of a hard border on the island of Ireland. 

MPs in response decisively voted against a no-deal Brexit and in favour of extending the Article 50 timetable (though revocation provided the only ultimate emergency cord). This was before ministers embarked on the even more contentious negotiations about the UK’s future trading and security relationship with the EU. The whole process has already severely tested the resilience of the former’s governmental and political systems. 

Westminster turmoil and Whitehall overload

A long winding road has been travelled since the 2016 EU referendum. Starting out with the expectation of a token role for Parliament, it culminated in defeats for prime minister May’s Brexit deal in the House of Commons in January and March 2019 of a magnitude with few precedents over the previous century.

Matters came to a head when the EU extended the Article 50 deadline, but on condition that the withdrawal agreement was approved by the originally anointed Brexit day of 29 March. It was duly re-presented to the Commons on that symbolic occasion. Despite May offering to fall on her proverbial sword to increase the prospects of success, it was yet again defeated, this time by a margin of 58 votes. A fourth attempt was nonetheless still on the cards. The EU did provide a short window of opportunity to establish whether a softer direction of Brexit travel attracted support through a parallel process of indicative Commons votes, thereby avoiding another potential cliff edge on 12 April.

May self-evidently struggled to maintain control over the Brexit agenda. The post-2017 hung parliament was not buttressed by a stable coalition like the one prevailing from 2010-15. But her predicament also reflected the momentous nature of the EU divorce, as backbenchers asserted themselves, party discipline frayed, and cross-party alliances took shape – reminiscent of historic constitutional battles between executive and legislature.

Whilst that tussle played out in Westminster, implementing Brexit was a source of much handwringing in Whitehall. The Institute for Government’s 2019 ‘Whitehall Monitor’ report highlighted the toll for on-going public projects. Work on major non-Brexit policy proposals suffered too. A recruitment drive to meet the needs of Brexit-facing departments reversed the fall in civil service numbers since 2010, reinforced by redeployments of existing staff. After nine years of austerity, £4bn of additional spending has correspondingly been allocated to ministries for Brexit preparations.

Whitehall capability was stretched even with an orderly transition, let alone the command and control structures necessary for a no-deal Brexit. The tight schedule meant a race against time to put critical infrastructure (not least IT systems) in place, with the state of contingency planning far from ideal. Much of the onus was placed instead upon local authorities, health trusts and police forces. And of course logistical challenges were compounded by Cabinet division and political paralysis.  

Cracks in party cohesion

The Brexit tear in the fabric of the British polity placed considerable strain on the unity of both the Conservative and Labour parties. Already, there have been defections leading to the formation of a small Independent Group of MPs in the House of Commons, in the process of registering as a political party.

The Euro-sceptic tendency, growing in the Conservative Party since the 1990s, generated increasingly bitter internal strife. The issue addressed by David Jeffery in December 2018’s ‘Political Insight’ is whether the party can survive such trauma. Historically, existential crises for it have indeed revolved around trade policy. This is borne out by splits over repeal of the Corn Laws in the 1840s and tariff reform in the late 19th/early 20th centuries.

Brexit though became proxy for a broader struggle over the identity of the Conservative Party. May’s endeavours to win the backing of Labour MPs from leave-voting constituencies, in her increasingly desperate attempts to get her divorce deal over the line, were revealing. Inducements included financial largesse from a Stronger Towns Fund, albeit spread over a multi-year period and worth less than half the sum set aside for Brexit contingency planning. Significantly, she also dangled the prospect of legislative safeguards on employment and industrial rights contrary to the deregulatory ideological project of her hard-Brexit faction.    

Fissures were therefore by no means confined to the Conservative Party. Jeremy Corbyn’s succession to the Labour leadership unnerved social democrats within the parliamentary party. Brexit for the first time introduced tensions with grass-roots supporters. A long standing Euro-sceptic, a stance of calculated ambiguity, not least to keep both pro-leave and pro-remain MPs onside, left him at odds with the overwhelmingly anti-Brexit views of the party’s membership.

Corbyn was also at risk of paying a heavy electoral price for failing to provide a clear rallying point for the pro-remain constituency among the wider voting public, under-performing in opinion polls against a government in disarray. His better than expected result in the 2017 general election had been partly due to support from demographic groups antagonistic towards the ‘red-line’ Brexit for which May had been seeking a mandate, and not just to his espousal of radical reform. 

These pressures, combined with fear of more defections to the Independent Group of MPs, persuaded the Labour leader to keep the door open for a public confirmatory vote on any Brexit deal – with remaining in the EU to be included as an option on the ballot paper.   

All of which raises the intriguing question: are conditions ripe for political realignment? Brexit divisions over cultural values (liberal versus conservative) cut across traditional left-right economic cleavages in the 2017 election. It produced a shift in the composition of support for the Conservative and Labour parties rather than their eclipse.

But despite the poor fate of breakaway movements under the UK’s electoral system, such are the seismic effects of Brexit that a future reshaping of British politics is not inconceivable. At the very least, the pattern of two monolithic parties acting as disciplined machines is breaking down. Previous constitutional conventions and political rules of the game are proving a poor guide in this unfamiliar landscape.    

Political trust a casualty again

One lesson stands out above any other. We cannot conduct democratic debate over issues so fundamental to the standing of the UK in such a cavalier manner again. There are models for engaging voters in a more deliberative and evidence-based way, such as citizens’ assemblies, used to defuse potentially explosive issues in other jurisdictions, notably in the Republic of Ireland.

The transcendent worry though is how the whole sorry saga may again be at the expense of trust in the political system. Events confounded the narrative promulgated by those who should have known better, that Brexit would bring the best of all possible worlds, rather than presenting painful choices and difficult trade-offs. 

Four consecutive Conservative premierships – those of Thatcher, Major, Cameron and May – have now been fatally undermined or destroyed by the European issue. General election or not, it is likely that we will have to wait for the next generation of political leaders to heal the deep fractures in British society, stemming from David Cameron’s politically expedient decision in 2013 to commit to a binary in-out referendum.

Top image: Kirsty O'Connor, via PA WirePA Images

 

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