An open letter to Boris Johnson (or whomever)...

Yesterday, the contest to succeed Theresa May as Conservative Party leader began. What should the winner do about Brexit? And how might last week’s commemoration of the 75th anniversary of D-Day help in finding an answer?

David Elstein
11 June 2019, 7.24am
Michael Gove and Boris Johnson on the Vote Leave campaign bus, June 1, 2016.
Stefan Rousseau/PA. All rights reserved.

Dear Boris,

As favourite to win the contest for the leadership of your party, I address this letter to you. But the contents are directed at all your fellow candidates, as they all face exactly the same challenges, whoever emerges at the end of July as the new Tory leader and – in effect – new prime minister.

The UK is not short of problems, old and new, crying out for solutions: in health, education, housing, law and order, infrastructure, social care, climate change, fiscal policy, foreign affairs, the regulation of social media and internet-based technology giants and much more. But Parliament has largely ground to a halt as the dilemma of how – and even whether – to deliver an exit from the EU continues to paralyze that institution.

It is easy to understand why some early Brexiteers have become disillusioned with the delays and the difficulties in reaching a resolution of what – in truth – is just the first part of an exit process whose most difficult phase has not yet been reached. Some, like Peter Oborne, have concluded that the game is no longer worth the candle. Many Remainers continue to hope that this attrition will eventually force a second vote to reverse the first (though such a development is strongly opposed by virtually all the Tory leadership candidates). In parallel, determined Brexiteers have turned to their old hero, Nigel Farage, whose new party seeks to exploit widespread frustration with the parliamentary blockage.

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There are multiple reasons for the stand-off. Perhaps most important was the failed attempt by Theresa May to consolidate her majority in the Commons, which simply re-inforced the paradox of a predominately Remain-voting collection of MPs trying to interpret a public vote for Brexit, but one lacking explicit detail on what actually constitutes Brexit.

Compounding the confusion has been the Labour Party’s inability to unite behind an anti-Brexit position (unsurprising, given that some 30% of its voters supported Brexit) whilst still resisting any version of the deal negotiated with the EU by Theresa May, however narrow the policy differences that prevent Labour support being offered. The continued preference for most Labour MPs is a general election or second referendum, with very few openly advocating revocation of the Article 50 notice (let alone signing on to a “Tory deal”).

Meanwhile, the Tory party has been split between those willing to accept the terms negotiated by Mrs May with the EU, and those for whom a key element of that deal – a guarantee to Ireland that it would never be forced to create a hard border with Northern Ireland as part of its treaty obligation to protect the EU’s single market – was a trap forcing the UK to choose between leaving Northern Ireland permanently inside the single market whilst the rest of the UK exited, or condemning the whole of the UK to permanent single market membership. This “backstop” would only be triggered if the UK and the EU had not agreed a new trading relationship before the termination of the planned transition period (originally, the end of 2020), but the prospect of any such trade deal being concluded in such a tight timeframe is remote, so the backstop “threat” is very real.

Despite many efforts to persuade the EU and Ireland that modern technology will do the trick, such that a time limit on the backstop could be accepted, there has been no shift in the EU or Irish stance.

None of this will change when the Conservatives choose a new leader. If anything, the deadlock will have been further tightened by the ebbing away of the weeks needed for the leadership election process as the new deadline for exit – October 31 – approaches. With a summer recess and party conferences taking up a further slice of the available time, minds in Europe are already turning to the question of yet further delay. The hope of disposing of Brexit before elections to the European parliament has been abandoned. October 31 was chosen as the last day before the new EU Commission takes office. If that date is missed, the next – and presumably final – deadline would be June 30 2020, the day before the new EU budget term starts.

But even if the EU were minded to agree to another extension (and President Macron was not keen on the current one, whilst the European Parliament will resent every single day spent with Nigel Farage lording it in the chamber as leader of the equal largest party, along with Merkel’s CDU), it can only respond to a request from the British government for such an extension. And, as it happens, most of the declared candidates have insisted that the current deadline must be the last (though Michael Gove accepts that a further delay might be both necessary and wise). In March, the Commons was able to find a majority in favour of demanding that Theresa May seek an extension of the 2-year agreed period provided for in the Lisbon Treaty; but she planned to ask for one anyway (though not for as long a one as she was actually granted). This time may be different.

Most of the candidates have now embraced a version of the mantra that a deal is desirable, but in the absence of one, leaving without a deal must be an option. Previously, the Commons has expressed strong antipathy to a no-deal outcome, but it lacks a mechanism to enforce that view if the new leader concluded that no negotiated deal could be reached.

In those circumstances, and if the new leader saw no point in seeking an extension of the deadline, the Commons would have just three options if it wanted to frustrate a no-deal outcome. It could use an opposition day to pass a resolution calling for the government nonetheless to seek an extension; it could go further, and ask for the article 50 notice to be revoked; or it could try to pass a vote of no confidence.

A vote of confidence would be the remaining (no pun intended), if nuclear, option

The first option lacks any element of compulsion: the new leader could simply ignore it. It seems unlikely that a majority would declare itself for revocation (which would constitute an unparalleled national humiliation, for which few MPs outside the Remain-supporting parties would want to take responsibility): so a vote of confidence would be the remaining (no pun intended), if nuclear, option. However, even assuming that there were a handful of Conservatives who had decided to draw a line under their parliamentary careers, and chose, as they might put it, to sacrifice party to country, it is by no means obvious that every Labour MP would vote for a general election, loudly as they have called for one for at least 12 months.


The reason is Peterborough. Although Labour just clung on to the parliamentary seat in last Thursday’s bye-election (triggered by the first-ever recall of an MP by the electorate), it did so after losing 17% of its share of the vote compared with 2017, winning – but only thanks to having a powerful and efficient campaign machine – with the smallest share of vote in any bye-election, and knowing that even another week of campaigning might well have seen the Brexit Party snatch victory, having come so close from a standing start just a few weeks earlier. Postal votes alone (almost none for the Brexit Party, hundreds, if not thousands, for Labour) may have decided this contest. That advantage will persist if there were a general election this year, though not to the same degree: whether it will make the difference between victory and defeat up and down the country is harder to say.

On June 2, The Observer published a poll by Opinium, conducted on May 31, showing the Brexit Party at 26% support in the event of a general election, which the pollsters interpreted as likely to deliver over 300 seats to Nigel Farage, thanks to support for the three main parties being split fairly evenly between Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat (22%, 17%, 16%). Analysis of the poll suggested that a rump Tory parliamentary group of barely 20 MPs would survive, who would allow Nigel Farage to take over at 10 Downing Street.

As it happens, on the day of the Peterborough result, YouGov came out with a similar result to Opinium’s, with Farage again at 26% but no other party above 20% (Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat at 20%, 18% and 20% respectively). No projection was offered, but such a split might even allow Farage to capture a majority in the Commons. If the Labour Party explicitly voted down a no-deal proposal from the new Tory leader, triggering an election, the scene would be set for a clear Brexit Party campaign message: throw them all out.

For a long time, the received wisdom has been that a Farage party can win many seats in a proportional system such as the European elections, but almost none in a first-past-the-post Westminster system, even if it attracted 12-15% national support. But 26% – let alone the 31% the Brexit Party won on May 23 in the European elections, sweeping every English district as well as much of Wales – is a very different proposition, fully capable of inverting that received wisdom.

For dedicated Remainers, and for the Labour Party, the only way of preventing such a Farage-dominated outcome would be to form an electoral alliance, such that a single candidate faced the Brexit Party and the Conservatives in every constituency – an arrangement that would require as a minimum that Labour reverted to being a Remain party. The chances of such an eventuality are so remote that even the least careerist Labour MPs would need to pause before triggering a general election in November, in which at least half of them could well lose their seats.

In the process, this self-destructive behaviour would have opened the door to Farage, and at the same time (unless the Party anyway, and improbably, converted to Remain in time for the election) have given a clear run to the LibDems and Greens to cannibalize the traditional Labour vote. A bloc of 80 or 90 LibDem and Green MPs would constitute an existential long-term threat to Labour – see what has happened to the SDP in Germany and the Republicans in France.

A bloc of 80 or 90 LibDem and Green MPs would constitute an existential long-term threat to Labour – see what has happened to the SDP in Germany and the Republicans in France

Of course, no-one should presume too much from snapshot opinion polls. First, constituencies are inherently individual, many are immune to even large swings against incumbents, and national swings are always subject to local variations. Secondly, if the pre-election polls confirmed the kind of split displayed by the recent Opinium and YouGov samples, there would be strong informal pressure for tactical voting, perhaps driven by voters themselves if party leaders proved reluctant. Yet if Remain voters started to organise themselves in that way, presumably Brexiteers would do the same, formally or informally, with the most pro-Brexit Tories benefiting from Brexit Party defections, and vice versa. The stakes would be very high for all parties.

There has been talk of a determined new Tory leader proroguing Parliament to avoid the whole issue of hostile resolutions and no-confidence votes, with dark hints that this might politicise the monarchy. Such a course of action seems highly unlikely. Normally, proroguing a session of Parliament is agreed on the nod, with an uncontested vote. In the situation imagined, a call to prorogue what has been an inordinately long and unproductive session might not receive the assent of the Commons: in which case, the government could simply let the clock run down to October 31, waiting to see if there were enough risk-taking opposition MPs willing to contemplate losing their seats in bringing down the government.

John Bercow, Speaker of the House (and hugely unpopular amongst the bulk of Conservative MPs, even though he used to be one) has described prorogation as “for the birds”, and Amber Rudd is amongst those who have warned that an activist Speaker and a creative bunch of MPs would force a general election to prevent a no-deal outcome. Yet Bercow, too, must realise that thwarting the government in this way wouid finally end his career: even if he were allowed to stand in his constitutency (by no means certain), local Conservatives would embrace a Farage candidate to crush him. And no peerage would then await him on leaving office.

That particular outcome, at least, is reasonably predictable. But in an election ahead of Brexit, Labour would have to work out what its key objective was: blocking Brexit, challenging a Farage party perceived as far-right, ensuring no return of a Conservative government, or protecting its left flank against a substantial challenge from the Liberal Democrats and Greens.

The Corbyn team might well calculate that a better alternative than forcing an election would be to let the chips fall, duck a no-confidence vote, and only pursue a general election after a no-deal Brexit has both de-fanged Farage and left the Conservatives to take the blame for any and all negative consequences of a no-deal exit.

For you, the new Tory leader, neither of these outcomes holds much attraction. Even if you are forced into an election by a Commons vote, holding it before delivering Brexit is a gift to Farage. Hanging on to even 50 Conservative seats might be a struggle. As for embracing no-deal, especially after a patchy preparation (thanks to May and her Chancellor having shut down much of the required activity and expenditure), the potential short-term downside carries the risk that at any time after Brexit a confidence vote could be lost and – with Farage’s fox having been shot and Labour no longer caught on the horns of the Brexit dilemma – a Corbyn government installed, perhaps with LibDem support.

That is why nearly all the candidates continue to state a preference for a re-negotiated deal as their exit strategy. The problem with that formulation is that the EU could not have been clearer: there is no room for any such re-negotiation. Indeed, Brussels is more than ready for no-deal, and has indicated that special measures will be deployed to mitigate the forecast negative consequences for Ireland.

What, then, might you do? Threatening not to pay the £39bn divorce bill agreed by your predecessor is unlikely to be productive. There is some case for challenging details of the settlement, as well as the timings of payments due, but reneging on actual debts is the behaviour of a rogue state, not an invitation to re-open delicate negotiations.

Reneging on actual debts is the behaviour of a rogue state, not an invitation to re-open delicate negotiations

It is obviously frustrating to have organisations like the CBI telling you that you cannot leave the EU without the EU’s permission: but the CBI has no interest in the kinds of issues – sovereignty, control of borders, control of money, being independent of the European Court of Justice – that have motivated the whole Brexit movement. It is also irritating – though nonetheless true – when the Irish government says it is the UK’s fault if the EU requires Ireland to establish a hard border with the North. But flailing at the unfairness of all this will get you nowhere.

Revisiting the Good Friday Agreement

So is there an escape route? If directly approaching Brussels is doomed to failure, perhaps it would make better tactical sense to see if Dublin might prove a more productive destination. After all, we have a bilateral structure created as part of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) of 1989, in the shape of the British-Irish Inter-governmental Conference.

Oddly enough, although the GFA is constantly – and correctly – cited as an international treaty the UK must respect, not many who do so know what it contains. There is virtually no mention of the border, nor of the EU. Although the EU likes to claim that the Agreement was negotiated “within the essential context” of the EU, it actually played no real role in the talks (US participation, by contrast, was vital): indeed, the armed conflict between the IRA and the British government pre-dated the UK and Ireland joining the EU, and persisted for more than a dozen years after their accession. Membership of the same customs union, and then the same single market, cut no ice with the gunmen.

Even so, the re-instatement of border controls would clearly have the potential to provoke some level of renewed terrorism: gunmen are less impressed by “international treaties” than are elected politicians. So is there something other than “smart technologies” (as Brexiteers like to call them) or “magical thinking” (as sceptical EU negotiators refer to them), that might defuse the border issue?

Perhaps, Boris, you should initiate a meeting of the British-Irish Inter-Governmental Conference, which is meant, amongst other things, to co-ordinate British and Irish policies with respect to the EU. Of course, when the GFA was signed, no-one imagined that either state might cease to be a member of the EU, but that does not invalidate the concept: if anything, it allows a bilateral discussion to take place without the EU being at the table.

The first item of discussion should be how to revive the underlying spirit of the GFA process. The Northern Ireland Assembly progressively became more polarized as hardliners (the DUP and Sinn Fein) squeezed out more moderate voices (the SDLP, the Ulster Unionists and the Alliance Party), thanks to the structure deliberately being framed to represent “nationalist” and “unionist” allegiances. At times, power sharing has worked, as when the “Chuckle Brothers” (as Ian Paisley Senior and Martin McGuinness were dubbed) found a modus vivendi. Now, relations between the two major parties are strained almost beyond repair, the Northern Ireland Executive has collapsed and direct rule has been imposed.

That state of affairs should not be allowed to persist, and it might be part of a “big offer” to Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to invite his government to re-examine how the GFA has been implemented. You might even include in the agenda for a meeting the status of human rights in the North and the unused provision for a border poll, to see if a majority of citizens in the North wanted to join the Republic. Given that a clear plurality voted to stay in the EU, even as the UK as a whole voted to leave, there is at least a presumption that unification deserves to be discussed, and opinion tested. Any such poll is strictly within the discretion of the UK Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, so showing willingness to hear the Irish government’s view might be seen as a positive step.

Watching the D-Day commemorations, it was impossible not to remember the vital role played by the giant artificial Mulberry harbours

But the biggest part of a big offer could be a means of neutralizing the border issue. Watching the D-Day commemorations, it was impossible not to remember the vital role played by the giant artificial Mulberry harbours, each the size of Dover Harbour. Although one of them was destroyed by a Force 8 storm, the other, at Arromanches was used to ferry 4 million tons of supplies, half a million vehicles and 2.5 million men into Normandy.

Britain could offer to build a “sea bridge” to convey all substantial volumes of imports and exports between the two parts of Ireland. The necessary ferries and harbour extensions at Belfast and Dublin might cost a billion or two, but funding them would be a price worth paying if it dislodged any need for a backstop.

Essentially, the UK would require all vehicular traffic larger than a motor car to use ferries rather than the road system to travel south, unless the Irish authorities had exempted the owner as a “trusted trader”. Over time, a larger and larger proportion of goods would qualify under electronic clearances, but the sea bridge would remain as a fallback indefinitely. In the interests of mutuality, all Irish exports to the North would be expected to use the same Dublin to Belfast route. Of course, there would still be some small-scale smuggling across the land border, but there always has been. A sea bridge allows all customs and regulatory checks to take place before any sizeable volumes of goods are unloaded.

The UK’s ability to guarantee construction of the necessary facilities during the transition period would eliminate the need for a backstop in a revised Withdrawal Agreement. However cumbersome and expensive the process, it is better than allowing the border to become a potential flashpoint, both literally and diplomatically.

Winston Churchill loved gadgets and ingenuity as part of his wartime armoury. As an admirer and biographer of Churchill, you, Boris, should display wit and generosity in trying to persuade Ireland’s ministers of the UK’s determination to uphold the spirit of the GFA, whilst avoiding the mistake of fetishising it.

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