Simon Usherwood / Sep 2017
As the fourth round of Article 50 comes to a close this week, it is useful to consider whether and how the log-jam might be broken.
The log-jam consists of several parts, the most substantial of which is the lack of clarity by the British government about its preferred outcome of the whole Brexit process: as anyone with experience of small children will know, it’s almost impossible to resolve a problem if one party cannot define what that problem is and how it might be addressed.
That has then fed into the practical side of negotiations, as the technical teams on both sides struggle to discuss anything more than the scope of what needs to be agreed, since there is no clear political orientation to then resolve those points.
All of which begs the question of how does the UK reach a position of agreeing what it wants?
Three main paths suggest themselves.
The most obvious option is that the British government manages to agree on a position. To which the equally-obvious response is that in the 15 months since the referendum, the Conservatives have resolutely failed to do this, despite every incentive so to do.
From the delay in triggering Article 50, to its manner of selecting a new leader, to the points at which Theresa May could have elaborated a coherent Brexit plan, the Prime Minister and party have chosen instead to offer vagueness and bluster.
Evidently, this is driven very strongly by the lack of consensus within the party and has been heightened by the weak position it holds in the Commons since the General Election: while there might be more hard Brexiteers in the party, the softer side number enough to make it hard to be sure of a reliable majority on votes. Put differently, May is not in a position to direct her party to follow her lead, but nor is any challenger able to either.
The Florence speech was an attempt to try and address this, but in characteristic May style, it left much unresolved and did not quiet her internal party critics in the run-up to the party conference. That conference will matter in shaping both party policy and May’s future, but it is clear that few Tories would want to risk replacing May if it meant fighting another general election against an ebullient Labour party.
And this leads to the second option: a change in government.
The weak position of the current government ironically makes it less likely that a general election will be called: recall the 1992-7 government of John Major, which struggled on with a vanishing majority as long as it could, to avoid the inevitable defeat it would suffer. This suggests the most likely path to a general election would be some internal collapse of the Tories, and a push to overturn the Fixed Term Parliament Act and the passing of a motion of no confidence: not the simplest path to follow!
But even if we did have a general election and a new government, would anything change? Labour did discuss Brexit at its conference, but at a distance and with a general understanding that the best course of action for now is to let the Conservatives make a mess of things and then define Labour policy in contrast to that. This has been the model so far, with a progressive softening of Jeremy Corbyn’s statements, and the model is likely to remain in place.
But would that change if Labour came to power? At the moment, that looks unlikely: the party – like the Tories – contains a variety of views, coupled to a leadership that is rather ambivalent. Indeed, there is little reason to think that Labour’s policy would be very different from the Tories at this point.
The only other option would be if either the Liberal Democrats or Scottish National Party came to play a strong role in a coalition, where they might push for closer ties with the EU. But even in this scenario, they would still face much debate and contestation from the main coalition partner.
Which leaves external imposition.
The Article 50 has always – and was always going to be – structured very much in the EU’s favour: it’s about what the EU will offer to the departing member state, rather than what that state chooses to keep. As such, the Commission and member states have been in a position to shape what happens.
And they have done this. From sequencing, to agenda-setting, to cross-linking of elements, the Commission has been very successful so far in getting its way. In this it has been helped by the weakness of the British position, which has not provided a coherent riposte.
As time runs down, there is an obvious incentive to do more of this: everyone wants a deal, the Commission has more of a vision of what that can be and the British appear rudderless. Certainly, there have been murmurs of such a worldview gathering momentum.
Here, the dangers are obvious. Pushing too hard would be counter-productive, given the likely response from London, where the need to be seen to be tough would point to a collapse of talks and a no-deal exit (despite everyone agreeing this would be the worst outcome).
Maybe there would be pressure from the wider international system to encourage the UK to find a solution, although the range of interests and positions and the various tensions – so recently underlined by the Bombardier story – suggest that this isn’t going to happen in a hurry. Likewise, a very major economic shock would need to be unambiguously caused by Brexit to have any effect on opinion.
Taken together, this suggests that there is no easy or obvious way for the UK to reach a consensus about this process.
Perhaps the best option is to stop relying on politicians to come up with all the answers and instead work on building grassroots debate and discussion. There remains a sizeable proportion of the population that remains well-engaged in this subject – albeit not at the level seen during the referendum – and there is a set of organisations that could help support the creation of a national debate.
Where that debate might end up is moot, but the process matters as much as the outcome: Brexit is a critical juncture for the UK, and its people need to make their voice heard, even – and perhaps, especially – when their leaders cannot make a decision.