Abandoning party politics in the time of Brexit
Last week, Theresa May’s Brexit war cabinet gathered to decide on the Government’s objectives on phase 2 of the EU-UK talks.
The European Union had already released their stance, and it is much of the same as phase one; namely that the UK cannot remain in the Single Market and Customs Union if it does not accept the four freedoms. This has split her smaller cabinet into soft and hard Brexiteers, or perhaps more specially, Home Secretary Amber Rudd and Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammonds versus Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Environment Secretary Michael Gove. This rift could prove disastrous for Mrs May as she desperately clings onto her post as Prime Minister, fully aware that both sides have the power to effectively remove her as leader of the Conservative party.
In many ways, the Prime Minister’s failing has been in trying to deliver a Brexit that the party likes. With a minority Government, propped up a Democratic Unionist Party who have shown that they are prepared to withdraw their crucial support if unhappy, Mrs May lacks votes and support. In simply preparing Britain for departure, she requires crucial legislation to pass through Parliament that ensures there is no ‘cliff-edge’ scenario legislatively, although she has already witnessed defeat in the Commons over backbench MP amendments and now faces a daunting fight in the House of Lords. Unfortunately, minority government is such that is empowers rebellion and defeat can become common-place, although the Government has done well to keep these to a minimum since the General Election.
This week, the European Commission laid out in no uncertain terms their understanding of a no-deal scenario and the impact it has on Northern Ireland. Should the EU and UK not agree a final deal, Northern Ireland will be expected to remain within the Customs Union to ensure that a hard border does not return between them and the Republic of Ireland. This essentially means that either the UK as a whole remains within the Customs Union, a red line for most Brexiters within the Conservative party, or Northern Ireland finding itself with some form of restriction entering Britain, a red line for the DUP. The Prime Minister insisted at PMQs on Wednesday that ‘no UK Prime Minister could agree’ to the European Commission’s stance. In truth however, no minority government Prime Minister can deliver Brexit, which lays Mrs May with two options, be they highly unlikely to actually occur.
Not seen since the Second World War, a grand coalition would involve an arrangement with the Labour party to be struck. It would inevitably require some portfolios to be given to front bench Labour politicians, whilst Jeremy Corbyn himself would likely demand either the position of Deputy Prime Minister or one of the grand offices of state. In truth though, it is highly difficult to envisage how this situation would play out. Whilst Germany appears set for its third coalition government in the last four administrations, the concept is highly rare in the UK. It has only ever been seen in the cases of the two World Wars. Whilst Brexit is an issue that can affect the UK for the remainder of this century, it is almost impossible to envisage the two parties coming together. Finally, ideologically speaking, the Labour and Conservative parties have drifted away from the political centre over the last few years, meaning that the agreements necessary to govern would be highly unlikely to be struck.
Suspending the party whips
There is another option for Theresa May, one that fits into a similar narrative of a Grand Coalition but could prove less politically disastrous. It is namely that of suspending the whips, or rather party politics in general, over Brexit and instead seeking the broadest consensus on the terms of Britain’s departure. It would mean going beyond the Government-Opposition lines, and force MPs to vote their conscience, rather than party lines.
For Jeremy Corbyn, this would be disastrous. Whilst his MPs favour remaining in the Single Market and Customs Union by an overwhelming majority, a substantial part of the party’s voters (in particular in northern constituencies) did vote and appear to favour a stronger Brexit if it brings reforms on immigration. For the minor parties like the Liberal Democrats, it could bring the opportunity to shape the debate and for Plaid Cymru and SNP, the chance to ensure representation of Wales and Scotland respectively.
For Theresa May, it could secure her position as Prime Minister. Whilst the Conservative party could remove her as leader, there is technically no obligation for her to resign as Prime Minister in that eventuality. It was something that was discussed when Margaret Thatcher was challenged for the leadership of the party in 1991, and the reverse process seen in 1940 with Winston Churchill (it was only six months after moving into Number 10 that he was eventually made party leader, after Neville Chamberlain passed away).
Finally, it would allow ensure that whatever the outcome, whatever the deal, that Brexit will be delivered with the broadest consensus of Parliament. It would ensure that Brexit, much like the Second World War, is not treated as a political issue but rather a national issue. It would ensure that the United Kingdom leaves the European Union united behind the most divisive political decision in a century.