British Politics: The State of Play
As we enter the political conference season, British politics are uncertain, confusing and challenging for all three UK parties. Theresa May has to secure a deal that avoids a cliff-edge crash out of the EU next March but knows that she faces significant difficulties both in the negotiations with Michel Barnier and securing a parliamentary majority. The conditions are so volatile that a government meltdown and early general election are possible which is what the main opposition Labour party is hoping. Yet Jeremy Corbyn’s party is similarly beset by division and instability. In this note we consider some of the big questions facing politics today.
Can May get a Brexit deal out of the EU?
Probably. There are two parts to a Brexit deal: the long term trading relationship and the immediate terms of withdrawal, including transitional arrangements. The long term relationship can be negotiated over time during a transition. But a transition phase depends on securing a Withdrawal Agreement. The sticking point to that is the Northern Ireland backstop. The EU wants a legal guarantee that Northern Ireland will in essence remain in the single market and the customs union in the event of no wider deal and believe that May acceded to this in December. The UK has a different interpretation of December’s agreement and says it is opposed to anything that would draw a customs or regulatory border in the Irish Sea. Theresa May is insistent on this issue and has even conceded an amendment to the withdrawal legislation which makes such an agreement illegal. However, she will face enormous pressure from the EU to concede in the coming weeks. If the UK accepts a Northern Ireland backstop then the deal can be done quickly. But the political risks for May are enormous. Any deal that alienates her DUP allies could bring down the government. She will need to convince them that any backstop provision would never be used – if that is possible.
Can May get a Brexit deal through parliament?
Possible but difficult. The parliamentary vote on a Brexit deal could be extremely tight. Labour will reject any deal because it wants to bring down the government and force an early election. The other Opposition parties – except the DUP – will join them. That means she must mobilise the vast bulk of her own party’s MPs as well as the less-than-reliable DUP allies to win Commons approval. Mrs May must then contend with the concerns of Tory MPs on either side of the Brexit divide. Some Tory Remainers have rebelled already on Brexit votes – enough to shoot down a deal if they feared it would lead to a hard Brexit. But their fear of a Corbyn premiership, which may result from bringing down the government, may focus their loyalty. The more serious threat arguably comes from Tory Leavers, who are greater in number and seem more willing to put Brexit before party. They demand a cleaner break from Europe than the Chequers plan would provide. But they will be wary that shooting down any deal that Mrs May secures from the EU could end up with either a second referendum or a delay in leaving or even shooting down Brexit altogether. Some in the government hope that they can persuade pro-EU Labour MPs to vote in support of a deal. This might be possible if they could be persuaded that the alternative is a no-deal, hard Brexit. But most Labour Remainers will risk the chaos of defeating the government in the hope of avoiding withdrawal altogether. Ultimately, the PM needs to pull off the most intricate political balancing act; presenting parliament with a deal which, having met the EU’s demand for legal clarity on exit terms, nonetheless has enough political promise to avoid opposition from the DUP; and enough ambiguity on future trade relations to avert a rebellion from her own side. It is possible, but it will be a knife-edge result.
Will May face a leadership challenge?
Probably not. There is widespread speculation that Boris Johnson will challenge Theresa May before Christmas. His hardline Brexit stance is popular among Tory members. He is the only figure, at the moment, who could try to depose the PM before March. But he is wounded by revelations about his private life and while popular with the members, many Tory MPs are vehemently against him. Although he has begun to pen various articles that look to be the basis for a future leadership manifesto, he has yet to spell out a clear alternative vision for negotiating Brexit. Without that, any leadership challenge before March would falter. Tellingly, Boris reportedly refused to put his name to the forthcoming ERG alternative plan for Brexit, fearing it lacked credibility. That underlines a central reality in the current political turmoil. Theresa May is protected above all by TINA – ‘there is no alternative’. As long as that remains true a leadership challenge will not materialise.
Will Labour split?
Probably, but not down the middle. Labour stands to gain from the government’s disarray yet Corbyn’s party is if anything even more divided than the Conservatives. An internal split has appeared inevitable for some time. The question is when and how big? Fissures are already emerging. The veteran MP Frank Field has resigned the whip in protest at anti-semitism and bullying. Hard left activists have begun to initiate votes of no confidence in several constituency parties, and are hoping to push rule changes through conference that would make deselections easier. Jeremy Corbyn has offered little sympathy or support to parliamentary colleagues facing that attack. If deselections did start to happen then the prospect of a major split in the party would significantly increase. The view expressed by Tony Blair, that the hard left may never be ousted from control of the party, has caused widespread soul-searching.
Yet most Labour MPs continue to hold out hope that the party can eventually be brought back into its traditional orbit once Corbyn is no longer leader. They are also held in line by the absence of any clear alternative. Talk of forming a new centre-left party is undermined by the lack of clear leaders and obvious followers. The SDP’s failure to break the mould of British politics with three very well-known, substantial political figures in Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams and David Owen, is a recent enough precedent to warn off a lot of centrist Labour MPs. So, it is possible that some Labour MPs will follow Frank Field out of the Labour party but for now, in the absence of a viable alternative plan or an explosive trigger event, it looks unlikely that a significant proportion of the parliamentary party would break away.
Where will it all end?
Theresa May faces her biggest challenges in the next six months. To secure Commons’ endorsement of an agreement with Brussels will be little short of a political miracle. But, on balance, our expectation is that she will achieve it and the UK will legally leave the EU on March 29th 2019. Beyond that, little is clear. Any Brexit deal is unlikely to settle the nature of Britain’s future relationship with Europe. The legal, economic, security and cultural relationships between the UK and the EU are set to be significant political issues for decades to come. As such, British politics is destined to remain volatile for many years.
By Lexington’s Director Declan McHugh
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