There is no conceivable path for Brexit to be delivered.
Over the last few weeks, I have become firmly convinced that the UK will not leave the European Union. Or, at least, not this year. It is hard to conceive of a way in which it would be politically possible. Setting aside the merits or demerits of the matter itself, which is not within the scope of this article, the failure of this government and, inevitably, of succeeding ones to deliver on the 2016 referendum result is to be lamented.
At some point this year a choice will have to be made by the House of Commons, and there are three feasible options:
1. Revoke Article 50 and remain in the EU.
2. Leave the EU with no agreement.
3. Leave the EU with an agreement.
There is, as discerning readers will surely notice, a fourth option. Article 50 could be extended. This is what happened on March 31, and will likely happen again. It is even possible that Article 50 is repeatedly extended until the next general election scheduled for 2022. However this is not a sustainable solution, and a Conservative government will not be able to keep up such a farce for long. Boris Johnson has already ruled out an extension of Article 50, while Hunt is only talking of an extension of a few weeks. A delay lasting into 2020 would provoke a huge Conservative backbench rebellion and yet another leadership election.
To leave the EU with a deal requires the House of Commons to pass the Withdrawal agreement. Theresa May attempted this three times, and was defeated three times by large majorities. The SNP, the Green Party, and the Liberal Democrats voted against it because they are outwardly pro-remain parties who are more than happy to disregard the 2016 vote to leave. The DUP, alongside a small group of hardline Conservative backbenchers, voted against it because of the so-called “Irish back-stop” which would keep the UK within a customs union indefinitely and risk economically detaching Northern Ireland from the Union.
Labour voted against it for more complex reasons. Labour’s 2017 manifesto committed it to leaving the EU with a deal, outside of the Single Market, but within the Customs Union. Despite the Withdrawal Agreement containing both a customs union implementation period, and a de facto customs union from the Irish back-stop clause, Labour voted against it. Ostensibly this was because the agreement didn’t say enough on workers and environmental protections, and yet when Theresa May offered to include these in return for Labour support, the offer was turned down. The real reason Labour are against the Withdrawal Agreement is internal; a huge majority of the membership and the PLP are deeply pro-remain. Any move by the Labour leadership towards actually voting in favour of the withdrawal agreement will tear the party apart; expect mass resignations of the whip and a collapse in the liberal-leaning middle-class Labour vote in the South.
For the UK to leave the EU with a deal therefore, someone will need to compromise. The EU could, for example, add a sunset clause on the Irish back-stop, thus placating some Conservative backbenchers and the DUP. However this won’t happen. Every political figure within the EU with any shred of power has said unequivocally and repeatedly that the Withdrawal Agreement will not be amended in any way. Backing down now would be an intolerable humiliation to them, and will embolden eurosceptics across the EU. Similarly, the idea that Nigel Dodds of the DUP and Steve Baker of the ERG will abstain or vote for the Irish back-stop is also absurd. There is a final possibility. Labour backbenchers could vote with the Government and get the Withdrawal Agreement through the Commons. Caroline Flint, former Labour Minister for Europe, did exactly that last time around and it looks like some more may join her. But again, the idea that some twenty Labour MPs are now suddenly willing to vote in favour of a bill they voted down several times already and against their party on the defining policy issue of the day seems fanciful to say the least.
That leaves no-deal. It is safe to say that no politician, journalist, or commentator has argued that a no-deal Brexit could be passed by the House of Commons. This is to be expected. Some 80% of MPs voted remain in 2016, and if a majority can’t even support leaving with a deal they certainly won’t support leaving without one. There is even a group of Conservative MPs, both backbenchers such as Kenneth Clarke and Ministers such as Tobias Ellwood, who have openly declared that they would bring down a Conservative government in a vote of confidence, joining the opposition, should it seriously attempt to leave the EU on no-deal. Nonetheless the reason that a no-deal remains a possibility is that it is the legal default. Assuming nothing changes, we leave the EU on October 31 without a deal. Johnson and Hunt have both said that they would be willing to leave with no-deal, and any change in law would conventionally need government approval which they presumably would be unwilling to give. Thus, ta da, we leave with no deal.
In normal circumstances the above reasoning would be correct. But these aren’t normal circumstances. The Speaker of the House, John Bercow, has made it absolutely clear that he would ensure that the House had a legally binding vote on leaving without a deal. This poses serious constitutional questions; isn’t the government supposed to control the parliamentary timetable, doesn’t all law require royal assent (ie. government approval), and does the Speaker simply declaring a motion to be legally binding really make it so? These are all unanswered, but I would not underestimate Bercow. The Commons has already taken control of the timetable only a few months ago, and Bercow even said he would refuse to bring Theresa May’s deal to the floor of the House for another vote in an unprecedented break of convention. He has shown himself to be willing to break the rules and so when he threatens to do so again, I would not take those threats lightly.
There is no conceivable political path for Brexit to be delivered. A General Election seems imminent in the circumstances. Counter-intuitively, the rise of the Brexit Party within the first-past-the-post electoral system threatens to actually weaken, not enhance, the representation of pro-Brexit views in the Commons. Similar to how UKIP won almost 4 million votes in 2015 but won only one seat, the Brexit Party topping the polls in the next election with some 25% of the vote (spread out across the UK) would still likely leave it gaining only a handful of seats. An anti-brexit Labour-Lib Dem-SNP coalition government is the most likely outcome, as most polling suggests. Article 50 will then be revoked, and this whole saga put to rest, for better or for worse.
Eren Balkir is a student at The London School of Economics and is a member of the Conservative Party