Most of my energy in the past few months has been invested in explaining what I think will happen with Brexit – mostly through my series of Brexit diagrams.
This has left rather little mental capacity to think about what should happen. This is a blog post to try to address that.
First of all, a few fundamentals.
There are no ideal outcomes here – we are in the realm of going for the least worst option, and a minimisation of either political, economic or personal costs. And the tensions and wounds inflicted here are going to take years to solve. This is a sorry story however you look it. Vindictiveness towards millions of people who thought and voted the other way is not going to be a good look, regardless of who wins – and avoiding that vindictiveness is going to take a long time and a lot of reconciliation.
Second, the essentials of Brexit remain unchanged – go for No Deal Brexit and the UK might get a political win, but it will take a massive economic and reputation hit (see Yellowhammer). Go for the Brexit Deal that May negotiated – a Hard Brexit outside the Customs Union and Single Market – and you end up with all the wrangles about the Backstop, and whether the UK is actually free of the EU sphere or not (I don’t think it ever can be, but if you think the UK can or should be, there is a viable concern here). Or seek some softer Brexit still – something akin to what Labour says it thinks it wants – and then you do not break your supply chains or damage your economy so much, but you then have to ask what was it all for? Or if the UK were to Remain in the EU, coming to terms with not having been able to leave is going to be politically hellishly painful.
Third, I have accepted and understand why a small majority of the population voted for Brexit at the 2016 referendum. The problem is that there is no consensus as to what sort of Brexit ought to be put into practice – and that is the heart of the problem. That is also why the “just do it!” brigade do not deserve a hearing – what is the price, and for whom, of just doing it? And did those people know that before they voted? The answer to the latter question is clearly no, so Brexit should not just be done at any cost.
With that out of the way, what actually should happen?
First and foremost, No Deal Brexit is both an illegitimate and dangerous option. It is not what was promised in 2016, and however you look at it there is no majority for it anywhere – not among the population, and not among MPs either. Trying to find parliamentary tricks like prorogation to make it happen is hence clearly wrong. Legislative efforts to ask for a further Article 50 extension from the EU so as to stop No Deal are hence vital once the Commons meets again in 2 weeks.
But then what should happen?
As I see it there is no majority for anything in the House of Commons as currently composed. The ERG hardliners in the Tory Party will not back any deal, even a deal shorn of the backstop. Theresa May belatedly tried speaking to the Labour Party, but Johnson with his prorogation effort, has soured relations with the opposition even more – why should they possibly work with him? And through all of this, Johnson – with the DUP – has a majority of just 1 seat officially, although in reality it might be a bit higher than that. But precarious nevertheless. But in summary, there is no specific Brexit variant that is going to get the approval of the House of Commons – not No Deal, not the current Withdrawal Agreement (WA) shorn of the Backstop, nor the WA with the original NI-only backstop, and the WA unamended, and not some as yet unspecified other or softer Brexit.
Conversely other ways out of the impasse also have not worked – there is no majority in the House of Commons for a 2nd Referendum, and there is also no majority to revoke Article 50.
And – importantly – nor do I see any majority for any of these different routes emerging between now and 31st October.
So what ways out are there?
Most obviously a General Election could either be called by Johnson (and 2/3 of MPs vote to make it happen), or forced to happen through a Vote of No Confidence in the Government. As I outline here, we have no idea how a General Election would go – but with a new composition of the House of Commons it would lead to some change at least. So I reluctantly would be OK to give it a try. My fear would however be that the pro-Brexit forces of the Brexit Party and the Conservative Party would make a better alliance than the Remain parties, and the Conservatives would win a majority of seats based on around 30% of the vote – which pushes the UK further into a political crisis (imagine the protests!) With the government officially having a working majority of 1, this is going to come to a head sooner or later anyway – there is no way Johnson is going to see it through to 2022 from here.
I do not hold out much hope for caretaker governments, even in the short term. The UK has no experience of them, and to make such an administration – even for an interim period – requires a good chunk of Tories to desert their party loyalties, and having observed how Tory Party members behaved when electing Johnson that essentially means the careers of those MPs end. Even if the current UK party structure makes no sense when observed as a whole, the loyalties within it make defection a major risk and wrench.
Ultimately I see no way to achieve any sort of closure on Brexit matters without a second referendum. Yes, I have major concerns about how the first one was run, but that referendum – plus the 1997 and 2014 referendums in Scotland, and 1997 in Wales – have left the UK with a messy hybrid scheme of Parliamentary and Direct Democracy. Putting the direct democracy genie back in the bottle might be ethically desirable but is practically impossible, not least because of the loosening of party allegiance in the electorate and voting behaviour less motivated purely by left-right issues. But until what happened first time has been fully investigated, and the rules for how to conduct referendums tightened up (here the Swiss know a thing or two!) then no further referendum should be attempted.
Revoking Article 50 might be a neat legal route, but it is Parliament re-asserting its power, to the detriment of direct democracy. While I would be happy with that route, I can very well see that MPs cannot bring themselves to do that.
Anyone who has got this far then must be thinking “but he said this blog post was about what should happen!”
The answer, oddly, is this. When Tusk said ‘Please do not waste this time’ on 11th April he was right. The problem was that there was not enough time. Back in the spring I wrote that one of three things needed to happen – a new Tory Leader, a General Election or a Referendum. The 6 months the UK was given was enough to do the first, but not the second (probably) and the third (definitely).
In other words, the UK needs a lot more time. Time to hold a General Election without No Deal hanging over MPs like Damocles’s Sword. Time to hold citizens’ assemblies across the UK to work out what sort of Brexit would actually work. Time to really prepare a Brexit plan similar in detail to Scotland’s Future prepared before the Scottish Independence Referendum. And then, with a Brexit plan with some legitimacy in hand, time to hold a referendum on it.
So if MPs are successful next week seeking to mandate the Prime Minister to extend Article 50, and the UK asks for 6 months, the EU ought to turn around and say “We’ll give you until 28 February 2024. 4 years and 4 months. Until right before the next European Parliament Elections. That ought to be enough time to sort all of this out.”
That ought to be a plan that anyone except advocates of No Deal Brexit can accept. It gives time for a real solution. The EU loses nothing though keeping the UK in (with the justification that the UK is incapable of deciding anything). Everyone can take a deep breath and have real time to work out how to proceed, rather than panicking from one deadline to the next.
So delay. For 4 years and 4 months. It’s the best way forward for everyone.
[UPDATE 30.8.2019, 1600]
Following a discussion about this post with Phil Syrpis (@syrpis) and Mark Williams (@muckyfellrunner), and separately with Adam Watson Brown (@awb58) and Anthony Zacharzewski (@anthonyzach), and separately with Martin Skates (@MartinLdnUK1977), and finally with Simon Cooper (@simonmcooper) and NoNoNo (@bikeetta), a few additional remarks.
This plan would only work with a General Election at the beginning of it. One of the subjects of that General Election would be how to use the 4 years and 4 months – or not. Parties opposed to the delay even happening could advocate not using the time, and agreeing to just exit as soon as possible (the first extension proposed this – if the UK agreed a Withdrawal Agreement it could leave earlier than 31 October). Parties that wanted to use the time could make proposals how to do so – using people’s assemblies for example, or means to strike a new Brexit Deal. Pre-deadlines could be struck with the EU for each of these components.
The issue of the EU’s multi-annual financial framework were also raised. Here I propose that if the UK has not left the EU by 28.2.2020, the UK participates fully in the EU budget and the MFF up until the UK’s exit. That might mean preparing two MFF variants for the period 28.2.2024 until 2028, but that should also be viable.