Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn might be atypical leaders of their respective parties, but in one way they are as traditional as they come: the extent to which they are partisan. Tribal. Defenders of their own parties above pretty much anything else.
May emphasised her commitment to the party when defending herself against the No Confidence vote. “I have been a member of the Conservative Party for over 40 years” she said. Corbyn tops this – 53 years he has spent in the party.
Even though MPs in both parties might have problems with the way their respective leaders are handling Brexit, when it comes to party matters they all line up loyally behind the leaders. 117 Tory MPs do not have confidence in May to be their leader, internally, but Labour cannot even get a handful of them to be ready to no confidence the government as a whole, and force an early election or change of Prime Minister.
There is not that much substantive difference between May’s Brexit (temporary but possibly permanent Customs Union, no Single Market) and Labour’s stated policy (permanent Customs Union, relationship with the Single Market somehow akin to the benefits of being in it). Yet the idea that either party would reach out to the other side of the house to forge a consensus is roundly rubbished by both sides. May rules out working with Labour to achieve a compromise, and only a sole Labour MP – Caroline Flint – was ready to back May’s deal had the ‘Meaningful Vote’ happened in the Commons.
Labour MPs rightly fear that they would be facilitating a Tory Brexit were they to side with May. Tory MPs fear they would be giving Corbyn the keys to Downing Street if they were to side with Labour as a way out of the Brexit impasse. And so we end up with the current stasis. The way the Danes or the Irish solved their impasses on EU matters are not adequate examples for the UK to follow.
With that in mind, what happens next?
I think, at least before Brexit happens, we can safely rule out any sort of Government of National Unity (GNU) as a way forward. I dislike the very term Government of National Unity, but the idea is clear enough – at a time of national crisis, proponents of this suggest a Government composed of Labour *and* Tory MPs (and possibly other parties too) would be the only solution.
But why would any Labour MPs want to work with Tories on this? Why would any Tories work with Labour MPs? The Tory ones would fear their local Tory associations, and the prospect of deselection. The Labour ones would fear what Momentum would do to them when the next election came around. The formation of a new political party of the centre could be a way to assuage those concerns, but with every British MP paranoid about that after the failure of the SDP in the 1980s, and with the FPTP voting system cementing the two party system, everyone is too scared to go down that route.
The emphasis then on ways out of the Brexit impasse has to be to find coalitions against something, to be able to appeal to the will of the people over and above Parliament, or for solutions that allow everyone to buy time or for problems to be fudged rather than solved.
No-one knows what the party political consequences of a People’s Vote would be. Demanding a second referendum, based on the rationale that Westminster is blocked, has a solid logic, but requires a certain understanding of MPs’ and Parliament’s limitations. A referendum could appeal to those MPs who want to Leave the EU with a Deal (i.e. anyone but the No Deal fanatics), and any MP in favour of Remain. The partisan problems here are present, but perhaps not insurmountable – the Tories have a pro-Brexit membership, but not a pro-No Deal Brexit majority among either members or MPs. And a People’s Vote gives them the prospect of keeping Corbyn away from Downing Street. Labour, once it understands it cannot get into Downing Street right now, might be able to come around to the idea of a referendum too.
Ultimately I think the most likely outcome is fudge to buy time instead. This is the path of least party political resistance.
There is a clear majority in the Commons against No Deal Brexit (that no party has as its official position anyway). But there is no majority in favour of anything, and no way to make such a majority – for some of the reasons laid out in this post.
So when May either loses the ‘Meaningful Vote’ on her deal in January or – more likely – pulls the vote again, and on 21st January the House of Commons takes back control of the process, the most likely demand from the Commons will be for more time.
May will be sent off to Brussels to ask for an extension to Article 50 as the way to avert the catastrophe of No Deal. That, perhaps with some chiding from the EU about the need for certainty and clarity, will probably be granted. The Tories will grumble that they were unable to deliver on time, but will gain some credibility for averting disaster. Labour will also be able to point out that it brought Britain back from the brink, without benefiting the Tories.
Partisanship intact. Problems deferred, not solved. Just like everything else in matters Brexit on the UK side to date.