The Liberal Democrats earned headlines this week for its policy – but here it is vital to be specific – that it would revoke Article 50 (and thus “cancel Brexit”) in the event that it won a majority at a General Election.
The specific pledge, therefore, is dependent on the party winning a majority of seats in the House of Commons, in which case it would have won a mandate from the electorate for that pledge and thus to overturn that same electorate’s decision from three-and-a-half years ago.
Clearly, this is politics. The Liberal Democrats are not likely to win an overall majority, in which case it will still be mandated to negotiate its way into a coalition government offering, perhaps, a “Final Say” referendum.
The Labour Party has taken a stance of campaigning for such a “Final Say” referendum. The choice would be between a “sensible” or “workable” Brexit deal, and remaining in the EU. In principle, this is an extremely reasonable position – once the electorate sees what the UK’s future relationship with its large neighbour and chief trading partner would look like from outside, it should have the chance to decide whether that is what it really wants.
This stance will come under two main lines of attack. Firstly, it is simply unclear – what is this “sensible” or “workable” deal of which they speak and how do they know it is negotiable? Secondly, Leavers will argue that offering a “Remain” option in a subsequent referendum will mean the EU will not negotiate seriously.
The first of these will be effective, particularly if there is an election, because the voters rarely reward a lack of clarity on the big issue. The second, however, may not be quite as effective as Leavers think. It will only point to the reality that there are only two types of Brexit – calamitous or pointless. As Leavers accuse the EU of being likely either to offer a Brexit so soft that voters will reject it as pointless, or so hard that voters will reject it as calamitous, they only prove the pointlessness of the entire exercise.
For all of this, there remains the distinct possibility that the next General Election will take place with the UK already having left the EU, rendering these positions pointless.
The Conservatives will recognise this as being in their interests. Specifically, what is in their interests is to leave imminently with a deal, thus avoiding any immediate cliff-edge (in fact, leaving with a deal would probably see an economic boost as Sterling would likely gain value). Whether the current incumbent of No. 10 knows how to get a deal, and how to get it past Parliament, is another matter.
So, what could the Opposition do on 14 October? Here, we need to raise something which thus far too few are talking about.
Remember, the theoretical reason for the suspension of Parliament was for a Queen’s Speech (in other words, an outline of the Government’s proposed Programme for Government). However, the Government now lacks a majority. There is a fair chance that the Queen’s Speech will in fact be rejected. By convention, this would be regarded as a Vote of No Confidence, thus setting the clock ticking either to a change of Government or to the announcement by as early as (but no earlier than) 28 October of a date for a General Election.
There is, of course, always the potential for the Convention to be ignored, forcing an actual Confidence Vote during which the Opposition may yet decide to leave the Prime Minister to stew a little longer until he carried out the requirement of seeking an extension of the UK’s EU membership. The Opposition needs to be careful here, because it could soon be the side charged objectively with breaching Convention and good faith.
Ultimately, this does mean that the chances of the Opposition being in effect forced to form a caretaker administration are higher than commentators currently seem to suggest. Opposition MPs all need to contemplate that.
So, if the Opposition were to form a caretaker administration, what policy would it pursue, given that some of the goals established here last week have already been accomplished and given the difference in policy of the two main (English) Opposition parties?
It seems to me that the policy most likely to unify the Opposition would be one closer to Labour’s, noting that this implies no loss of face for the Liberal Democrats as they have been clear that their policy of revocation applies only in the event of their gaining an absolute majority in Parliament. It therefore remains the case that the Opposition’s best bet is surely to take office, to recommend that the public should decide between seeking an EFTA-Association-style Withdrawal Agreement and remaining in the EU.
The EU has said it will not re-open the Withdrawal Agreement, but that position is predicated on the UK’s maintaining its current red lines. A new administration pledging to offer an EFTA-Association-style relationship would essentially be abandoning the red line that there should be no freedom of movement (of workers) in future, and thus enabling the rewriting of the political declaration of the Withdrawal Agreement sought by the EU to allow a transition period potentially to the end of 2022 without the backstop needing to apply. Since an EFTA-style relationship would maintain regulatory alignment in most areas, with divergence likely only in agriculture and fishing (for which there are already partial checks in the Irish Sea), maintenance of an open land border with Ireland would be relatively straightforward.
Nor does an EFTA-Association-style agreement necessarily require actual membership of EFTA. As noted last week, it may be preferable for the UK to do what Finland once did and operate as an associate. EFTA would continue as is, but could bring in the UK to its agreements (and vice-versa, for that matter) if it were mutually beneficial.
Thus, it would be perfectly possible for a new administration to put to the public in a referendum this strategy for withdrawal from the EU (it can have the referendum as early as possible in the new year with a withdrawal date of 30 April, the end of the current budgetary cycle – the details can then be worked out over a transition period lasting potentially up to two and a half years), in the knowledge that the EU and EFTA would surely be relatively content with it. This is, essentially, the “workable” Brexit of which the Labour Party speaks.
What happens if the Opposition does not act, and the Prime Minister remains in post with his hands tied? Then the money remains on an election around 28 November or even 5 December, although it is increasingly hard to see what purpose such an election would serve except if the UK has left the EU with a deal in advance. In the event of a genuinely chaotic Brexit, surely a national government rather than another five-week suspension of Parliament would be required? In the event of no deal agreed with the EU by 31 October, the next step from everyone’s point of view (including, Remainers should note, the Prime Minister’s) would surely be a referendum rather than an election?
This points to another potential difficulty for the Opposition. Either the Prime Minister will blame them for having his hands tied so he cannot get a deal, or in fact he will return to the Commons before the end of October with a deal agreed. If at least some of the Opposition agree to such a deal, he can then move to an election with a fair likelihood of success (as there will no or very limited immediate chaos and he will have delivered as he said); if they do not, he will be able to paint them all as closet Remainers and can then head into a “People versus Parliament” election (with or without a prior referendum) just as he originally planned. This is why a deal with the EU is so clearly in the Prime Minister’s strategic electoral interest.
Given all of this, it may prove better for the Opposition to force No Confidence and form a caretaker administration as soon as possible to move towards a referendum under which they set the terms as above. Leaving it to the Prime Minister to come back with a deal is high risk in every sense, leaving open a route either to an election or to a referendum on his own terms which could yet result in the very “No Deal” Brexit they are trying to avoid (plus five years of dangerously incompetent Populist-Conservative Government).
The stakes are high, but predict nothing with certainty!