What does the unprecedented Brexit defeat of the UK government mean?

We are headed into the vortex

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
16 January 2019

It was the oddest ‘historic’ day in Westminster politics. What was really unprecedented about it – and in this sense genuinely ‘historic’ – was that a hugely important decision was not taken. The country’s leaders declared in the most resounding fashion that they could not make up their minds!

The prime minister, Theresa May, responded to the landslide rejection of her negotiations by saying, "It is clear that the House does not support this deal. But tonight’s vote tells us nothing about what it does support”.

The near identical point had just been made by the leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, in his summing up. Foreseeing the defeat of the premier’s proposals he stated, “it is not enough for this House to vote against the deal before us and against No Deal. We also have to be for something”.

But what is the House of Commons for, what does it support?

Corbyn emphasised that MPs had “to consider all the options available”.

openDemocracy readers around the world are not the only ones to find themselves baffled as to what is going on.

The crux of the problem is that the leaders of both the government and opposition want, sensibly, for the UK to remain a trading partner within the EU’s regulated space. At the same time they don’t want the UK to be governed by it. The result is an irresolvable tension. Because they cannot resolve, it could tear the political system apart. 

This is Jeremy Corbyn attacking May’s deal last night: “The vague Future Partnership document says it: ‘can lead to a spectrum of different outcomes… as well as checks and controls’. There is no clarity whatsoever. And there is not even any mention of the ‘frictionless trade’ promised in the Chequers proposals. The former Brexit Secretary promised a ‘detailed’, ‘precise’ and ‘substantive’ document. The Government spectacularly failed to deliver it. So I confirm that Labour will vote against this deal tonight because it is a bad deal for Britain”.

But Theresa May was merely keeping her options open for the future trade agreement.

For his part Corbyn wants a deal that ensures the UK stays in the EU’s Custom Union, one that will also, “guarantee our participation in European agencies and initiatives. Losing this co-operation undermines our security, denies our citizens opportunities, and damages our industries”.

In which case, what is the point in leaving?

A question that right-wing pro-Brexit commentators have raised in objecting to May’s approach.

So there is something very uncanny about the impasse. At the heart of a massive typhoon of a crisis are two leaders who seem personally rather similar in their inflexible commitment to being half-in and half-out.

Nor do either the prime minister or the leader of the opposition back the obvious solution for their immediate problem.

For May, this is to amend her deal by saying it has to be ratified by the voters in a referendum or we stay. This simple move would enable her to put her deal, which she says delivers the “instruction” of the voters, to the voters themselves to confirm that it does indeed do so. Thus amended her deal would immediately command a majority, if a small one, in the Commons.

All Corbyn needs to do is… exactly the same. Put aside his once convenient but now implausible notion that he could negotiate a better Brexit and propose an amendment to May’s deal that it must be backed by the people, or the UK stays in the EU. He might not get a majority for this if the government opposed it, but he might.

Of course, in any such referendum May would be advocating her deal and Corbyn would support staying in, so the same amendment would not bring them together.

However, they are united in resisting a new referendum or People's Vote. Some people say it is because Corbyn is a Brexiteer. Others say May is committed to her deal and won’t risk its fate in a public vote. I suspect something else is at work. 

For the key to understanding Brexit is not to think that Brexit is about Brexit or the realities of Europe and the UK’s relationship with it.

It is about Britain and how the country is ruled and its political culture and self-regard.

At the centre of this for both May and Corbyn is the Westminster system in which they have spent their lives. Each believes in it and senses that institutionalising referendums ends the sanctity of its sovereignty. Neither liked the 2016 referendum itself. Both seek to “respect” its outcome not because they thrill to its democratic audacity but because they want to limit its impact and redirect energy and public loyalty back into the House of Commons.

For example, their supporters say that to even risk going back on the decision of the 2016 referendum would lead to a "loss of trust". What they mean is that they do not trust the people but want the people to trust them. Far from embracing the democratic radicalism of the moment, they want to shore up traditional form of winner-takes-all power and the UK's very centralised forms of  government, albeit for contrasting social and economic objectives. Foolishly, they think that "delivering" on the result of the referendum will re-establish the battered authority of Parliament. 

"they do not trust the people but want the people to trust them"

But there is an additional twist that makes this a genuine drama for the sustainability of the system as a whole.

For the divisions over ‘Europe’, which are in reality over what it means to be ‘British’, run more deeply through the Tory party than in Labour. The Corbyn leadership’s strategy is to encourage the division of their opponents so as to wreck the Tories and inherit power long-term as they implode. But this is a risky precisely because Brexit is not about Brexit. It isn’t a policy, as many Labour figures seem to think, when they compare it to the divisions over the Corn Laws over which the Tories split in 1846 for a generation. A binary decision has to be made by them as well, one that has profound cultural and class consequences from which Labour as we know it may well not emerge either way.

By taking a traditional, parliamentary approach Labour may in fact blow up themselves. They are not going to easily survive a ‘no deal’ their approach makes more likely. Article 50 is like an anvil, it forces Britain out of the EU on 29 March unless the Commons can agree on a course of action. Meanwhile the Trump administration is like a hammer, backed by Murdoch’s Sun, driving the Brexit ultras on. They know what they want. Time is on their side.

The Brexit ultras may be a minority but they can only be frustrated by opponents who also know what they want and will fight for it by persuading voters to change their decision. There is no other way of staying in or now it seems half-in the EU. But England, unlike Scotland, does not yet have a coherent, positive leadership that could win a new referendum with the necessary élan – just outstanding individuals, above all Caroline Lucas. If May and Corbyn, the two main party leaders and their teams, stay opposed to a new referendum they won't be able to match the force of the hard Brexiteers. Equally stubborn, mutually uninspiring and jointly parliamentarian, May and Corbyn are taking the UK into the vortex.

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