The vote in the House of Commons on whether the British government can trigger Article 50 has been revealing. It showed just how much the current Brexit debate is cast not by the economic and international interests of the UK, but by British (and in fact, mainly English) party politics.
Public opinion has always been ambivalent about EU membership. The British public have generally been willing to follow the government of the day on the UK’s relationship with the EU. And we can see that it very much still is.
Britain’s departure from the European Union is all about the Conservative party. The decision to hold a referendum in the first place was party political – former Prime Minister David Cameron’s attempt, monumentally failed, to silence Conservative eurosceptics and to quash UKIP. The Conservative government’s reaction to the result was a rapid exercise in party score settling, ending with the appointment of Theresa May – herself a quiet remainer – to the most difficult mantle any prime minister has inherited lately.
May’s policy has been, in effect, a continuation of Cameron’s – to prioritise the wishes of the eurosceptic right. Her first goal, therefore, is to reduce immigration. While she must hope for a Brexit deal that will give some access to the single market alongside restrictions on freedom of movement, her posture suggests Britain’s economy will play second fiddle to her ability to tell voters she has a deal on immigration and Britain has freed itself from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.
The politics of Brexit have centred first on the statement that the referendum result was the will of the people, and that the government’s duty is to carry it out, and second on the continued “in-out” tenor of the debate.
Eurosceptics have regarded any legal or parliamentary scrutiny as an attempt to “stop Brexit”. So although British politics should have been transformed by the outcome of the referendum, and debate should have shifted to how to exit and the difficulties this might entail, it has in fact continued along the referendum campaign’s “for or against” lines.
Where was Labour?
The supreme court judged that the government could not trigger Article 50 without parliamentary support. The government tabled a short bill, and parliamentarians tabled amendments, including whether to hold a second referendum, and to guarantee unilaterally the rights of EU citizens living in Britain. Each of the amendments was defeated, and the bill overall passed with a large majority. Why was this?
Conservative party discipline has been impressive. Only the long-time europhile Ken Clarke defied his party whips on the final division. For the Conservative remainers the alternatives seem worse. They are unsure whether it is better to oppose outright or to find ways better to scrutinise. Stickling too much now might reduce their influence in the party later, when the terms of any deal become clearer. Most have to concede that May has played her political cards well. The Conservatives also like the fact that they are more united than Labour.
Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party, meanwhile, remains unclear about its position towards Brexit. Corbyn has said Britain should retain “tariff free” access to the EU – a position which does not address Britain’s relationship to the single market – and has at various times declared his support for free movement and his willingness to restrict it in some circumstances. Corbyn also wants to protect rights for workers.
It is difficult to discern whether Labour’s Brexit position is born of pragmatism, or whether it simply reflects Corbyn’s own long rooted ambivalence to Britain’s participation in European integration. Many MPs represent constituencies which voted to leave, and a constitutional crisis now would probably not serve Labour’s longer term interests. Supporting the bill now might allow greater scrutiny and say later on.
Corbyn imposed a three-line whip to support the Brexit bill, but 52 of Labour’s 229 MPs defied that whip in the notification of withdrawal division. Of those rebels, four, including Labour’s business spokesman Clive Lewis, resigned from the shadow cabinet.
The Article 50 bill will now pass to the House of Lords, where peers are unlikely to place strong obstacles to its passage. In all probability, May will trigger Article 50, thus beginning negotiations with the EU on Britain’s departure, by the end of March.
Politically, therefore, May has outmanoeuvred the opposition thus far. However, the politics of Brexit may now get tougher as the stage widens beyond the parties, and as, presumably, debate has to range beyond the familiar “in-out” lines. Negotiations with the EU are likely to be anything but plain sailing, and as negotiations progress, the ambiguities in Britain’s negotiating aspirations will become exposed.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon feels that May has ignored Scottish concerns, and may well move towards a second referendum on Scottish independence. The issue of the Irish border was not dealt with convincingly in the government’s white paper.
The government has conceded that MPs can vote on the terms of the final deal, but also made clear that the vote will be on a “take it or leave it” basis. It does not intend that the vote could peel back whatever it is that has been agreed.
The future, therefore, is still uncertain: May’s deal with the EU could be anything from membership-lite (unlikely) to a settlement that not only changes Britain’s position in world politics, but also gradually transforms traditional party politics, and the continued existence, in its current form, of the UK.