As Brexit mess deepens, there are no easy answers in sight

With less than a month-and-a-half left for the deadline, the stalemate in parliament continues even as various stakeholders prepare for a disruptive exit of Britain from the European Union

February 13, 2019 by Anish R M
Image: 123RF/DONATO FIORENTINO

As the scheduled date for Brexit, March 29, is closing in fast, the Theresa May government is yet to arrive at a second deal after the one negotiated with the EU over 18 months was defeated in the House of Commons by a historic margin. Time is of essence, since the government only has 45 days left to renegotiate and 23 sitting days for the House to debate and vote on it. May’s repeated calls for the EU to reopen the negotiations have only fallen on deaf ears. Companies and the European mainland are readying themselves for a no-deal Brexit, which seems increasingly more likely.

But amid the uncertainty, the past few weeks have seen some interesting developments. Ever since a confidence vote was moved against her by opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, prime minister Theresa May has effectively rearranged the ruling bloc within the House. The results of the confidence vote, on January 16, made it quite apparent that the Tories were not ready for an election as long as they are stuck with May in the leadership. After the confidence motion, it was also clear that the May government handed over control over the Brexit process so as to continue its term in office.

Take the amendments vote and the debate that happened on January 29. May tabled a ‘neutral’ motion on her future plan of action to negotiate with Brussels, now called the ‘Next Steps’ motion on January 21. The debate was a demonstration of readjusted alliances within the House of Commons, especially within the ruling Conservative Party or the Tories. Around two dozen MPs proposed amendments to the plan that would not only shape the future Brexit process but also the framework of a second deal. The House of Commons effectively took control of the negotiations and the Brexit process. Of the 24 amendments proposed, seven were moved, and only two passed on January 29.

The amendments that were moved but not passed included ones by Corbyn and two other Labor MPs, Yvette Cooper and Rachel Reeves. They sought to extend the exit process if the government, or the House, could not approve a deal by February 26. The two that were passed were from prominent backbenchers, former environment secretary, Caroline Spelman, and chairman of the powerful 1922 Committee of the Tory party, Graham Brady. Both the amendments required that the UK not leave the EU without a deal, but did not provide any timeframe for that. The Brady amendment also opposed the very contentious Irish backstop.

Tory Consolidation

The more interesting part of what transpired since Theresa May’s deal was voted down, in what was termed as the “meaningful vote”, on January 16, is how the Tories came together as a solid bloc inside the House. May survived the no-confidence motion of January 17, with a vote tally of 325-306, the same number that propped up her minority government, after losing the majority in the 2017 flash poll. She managed to maintain the support of all her party MPs, along with the 10 DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) MPs who support her minority government. It must be noted that hardly a month before the confidence vote in December 2018, more than a third of the MPs had voted against the government in an intra-party leadership challenge. Almost all the same MPs, along with the DUP, voted against the Brexit deal that was tabled on January 16. This, at the time, indicated not so much a confidence in May’s leadership within the government, but a reluctance to face an early election with high chances of losing it to a more left-inclined Labour government led by Corbyn.

On Tuesday, the Tory party voted as a singular bloc on all the amendments that were moved, be it for or against them. The Brady amendment, in fact, attracted vocal support from the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg, who moved the December motion of no-confidence against May. The same cannot be said about the opposition. The tenuous relations between the Labour, the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the Plaid Cymru was out in the open, when Labour abstained from voting on the amendment moved by SNP MP, Ian Blackford, demanding that Scotland not be dragged out of the EU along with the UK. The bigger friction was revealed in the fact that Labour tabled three separate amendments from Corbyn, Cooper and Reeves, even though the content was more or less the same. Despite the debacle of the January 16 vote, it is the Tories that now seem more united.

Brexit to reignite competing nationalisms

The question remains whether Britain will hurtle or sail through this exit. May has said that an extension of the Article 50 of EU Charter, which initiated the exit process, is next to impossible. To add to that, the EU leadership has categorically declined calls to reopen the negotiations over the withdrawal agreement.

The tricky part would be to deal with the Irish and Scottish nationalists. The virtually invisible land border that Ireland shares with the UK is crossed more than 110 million times daily, one of the highest in the world. Irish prime minister, Leo Varadkar, is set to oppose any changes to the Irish backstop plan. This coincides with a renewed call for Irish unification by nationalists in Ireland. The Sinn Fein, the only Irish party that contests elections and has legislators in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, has amped up their nationalist campaign. Meanwhile, the DUP, the Irish unionists, are arm-twisting the Tory government into doing away with the backstop altogether and sharing a ‘hard’ border with Ireland. This hints at a possible resuscitation of the political unrest and violence that characterized Northern Ireland of the 1980s. May has repeatedly requested parties to arrive at a middle ground to avoid going back to the ‘Troubles’. Many suggestions have been floating around, including a ‘hard but invisible’ border with no physical fencing but other technologically advanced customs check, and a time-limited transitional backstop, followed by a referendum in Northern Ireland.

But all this supposes that a deal is negotiated and agreed upon. The EU President stated that a ‘no-deal’ exit would mean a hard border with the UK in Ireland. There is very little indication as of now that a deal can even be negotiated. While the EU would prefer an Irish backstop, there is very little visible inclination that the leadership wants it at any cost. Compared to the greater damage that will follow a no-deal Brexit, losing Northern Ireland from the EU Customs Union is a small loss for them.

Then there is Scotland, the only other region or country within the UK, apart from Northern Ireland and Greater London, that voted overwhelmingly to remain within the EU, in the referendum of 2016. Claiming that the May government is “dragging” Scotland out of the EU against their wishes, the Scottish National Party has been pushing for a second independence referendum. Ever since Brexit was proposed, Scottish people have by-and-large supported the UK remaining with the EU. For the Scots, especially the younger population, integration with the larger European economy gave them unprecedented opportunities, which were otherwise closed to them ever since the sun set on the British Empire. Moving out of the EU will pose severe economic challenges to the Scottish economy, which is evident by the flight of investors from Scottish industries ever since the government survived the confidence vote.

There are also fears of an emergence of a violent English (ultra-)nationalism. This was evident as reports emerged of a revival of Cold War-era evacuation plans for the monarch and her family, if London were to witness riots in the event of a no-deal Brexit. Whatever be the outcomes, the UK seems set to face a huge identity crisis, reopening centuries-old conflicts that were neatly brushed under the rug through various trade arrangements within the EU.

What can Britain expect?

Speaking to Peoples Dispatch, Robert Griffiths, general secretary of the Communist Party of Britain, outlined what it means to support a “people’s Brexit”. Griffiths outlined that under a progressive government, perhaps led someone like Corbyn, Britain can undertake a drive to revitalize the British economy without the interference of the European Union and its neoliberal regulations. According to the ideal situation he lays out, reinvesting in British industries, railways, public healthcare and education would not only soften the blow of seceding from the EU but also put British on an expansion mode, even if it is within the confines of the national economy. But he does hint that a Brexit under someone like May can go the other way.

For starters, the government would have to work overnight to keep up the confidence of companies and investors, whether or not the Brexit goes as planned. Already, major companies are preparing not just for a no-deal Brexit but for Brexit in general, with plans to move to Paris and Frankfurt. This includes Dyson Ltd, owned by James Dyson, a prominent supporter of Brexit himself. A recent report by the Institute of Directors, a corporate lobby group, indicated that 16% of the large firms in the UK are already outlining their plans to move out of the UK, with another 13% actively consulting on the proposition. This can imply loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs in an already stagnant economy. The British pound itself is expected to nosedive post-Brexit, even if the rejected plan were to be taken up.

There is also the problem of limits to expanding the British economic productivity. Recently, economist Jayati Ghosh pointed out that that real wages were stagnant in the UK even while it was in the EU, and so was domestic demand. According to her, it will be very difficult for Britain to capitalize on foreign demand to fuel its expansion. Hence, Britain will have to expand wages and, by consequence, demand. For that, extensive government intervention would be required, which is not something the Tories are inclined to.

A largely conservative ruling bloc will not consider government reinvestment on crucial industries to keep its economy solvent, as a first step. With the whip having effectively gone to the hardline Brexiters within the party, the government is more likely to consider chipping off or outright attacking labor protections to make the UK attractive to foreign investments and businesses. Analysts have pointed that this could essentially mean a second era of what is known as marketization, or neoliberal assault, depending on where you lean on the British economy. This can be in the form of unbundling, and even privatizing, public healthcare and other such large national industries, to keep itself lucrative to foreign capital. In that case, the English working class that voted overwhelmingly in favor of leaving, in the 2016 referendum, will pay dearly for Brexit.

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