Can the government avoid crashing out of the European Union without a deal?

Jeremy Hunt has said what many MPs privately fear: that a no-deal Brexit could happen by mistake. 

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Could the United Kingdom leave the European Union without a deal – by mistake? That’s the disastrous event that Jeremy Hunt has warned against today, and it’s certainly possible.

The British government has a series of red lines that are, to put it mildly, difficult to reconcile with one another: no change in the border on the island of Ireland, no additional borders between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, no continuing role for the European Court of Justice and the freedom to strike our own trade deals, to name just a few of the incompatible aims that Theresa May has.

Added to that, there is no Brexit of any kind that can currently command either of the two necessary majorities for this government and this parliament to pass: the first is a majority within the Conservative parliamentary party and the second is a majority in parliament as a whole.

What will happen next? Here are some possibilities.

Brexit without a deal

A recurrent phrase among Conservative MPs who favour some kind of soft Brexit is that there is no parliamentary majority for a no-deal Brexit. This is true, but unfortunately for them, this doesn’t matter. Because parliament has already triggered Article 50, Brexit will happen at midnight, Brussels time, on 29 March 2019 regardless of whether a deal has been reached.

On the face of it, this feels like the most likely outcome because it doesn’t require anyone to change. It doesn’t require any of the Brexit ultras to U-turn on their opposition to Theresa May’s Brexit strategy, or for Labour to bail the Tories out of their hole.

But the important thing about leaving without a deal is it means a Labour landslide. This is certainly true of a “pure” no deal, in which no arrangements are struck to allow planes to fly, to avoid chaos at ports and for hospitals to continue to source radioactive isotopes for cancer treatment. Frankly, anyone who believes that British voters would forgive a government that allows shortages of food, medicines and other goods should spend a little time on any train platform, study the hostility even minor delays are greeted with and think very carefully about what that says about people’s tolerance for no deal.

However, I also think that a “planned” no deal, in which both the European Union and the United Kingdom realise no accord will be reached and basic arrangements are struck to prevent the worst aspects of no deal, will cause electoral damage the government cannot walk off, because the immediate result of a no-deal exit will still be a large degree of chaos. As the government does not have the infrastructure or the know-how to leave the EU on 29 March 2019, there will still be shortages of some goods, and crucially prices will be significantly higher.

The head of the British Sandwich Association was ridiculed by the unserious wing of the Brexit elite when he said that his industry would be unable to make a “British-only” sandwich, but his central point is a vitally important one. What makes say, a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich not only available all the year round, but at a low price is that at any point the bacon, lettuce, tomato and indeed the raw ingredients for the actual bread can be sourced, tariff-free and friction-free from throughout the European Union. In the event of a planned no-deal Brexit, the cost of sandwiches will rise and the variety will reduce.

Now, I think it is unlikely in the extreme that people will draw a direct link between their work lunch going up in price and Brexit, not least because neither the government nor the Labour leadership has an interest in saying this has happened. Instead, people will just feel poorer, angrier, and significantly less inclined to re-elect the government.

When I speak to MPs and look at the basic arithmetic this feels and seems like the most likely scenario. But I don’t buy it. My underlying assumption – which of course may be heavily influenced by the fact I don’t want to live through a financial crisis and shortages of essential items – is that when push comes to shove, the Conservative leadership won’t allow a situation in which their hopes at the next election are extinguished long before the contest starts.

But how can they get out of it?

An early election

Theresa May desperately needs to shift the balance of forces in parliament somehow. Why not have another election? In practice, although the Fixed Term Parliaments Act is meant to limit the number of elections, if the government wants one, it can get one anytime it likes because the opposition parties can never decline an opportunity to replace the government.

But if the government doesn’t want one they can very easily get out of it by saying what a great job they are doing and that now is no time to change direction. (Of course, given the circumstances this message sounds especially silly but it will get junior ministers through a tricky television interview, which is really all that matters.)

I cannot envisage a situation in which either the Conservative Party’s leadership or its MPs will want an early election. Firstly, look at how badly the last one turned out. Secondly, if there is another election, it will be the third time in three years that the Conservative Party has gone to the country asking it to bail them out of their own internal strife. People don’t like elections on the whole and tend to punish parties for making them vote unnecessarily.

There is also the very real risk that all another election does is waste more time and produce a parliament that looks essentially identical to this one, or is even more divided.

It just feels like too big of a risk for the Conservative Party to go to the country early, so I don’t think that will happen.

A vote on the terms of the deal

The author Robert Harris put the case for another referendum – this one on whether to accept or reject the deal done by Theresa May or whoever is Conservative prime minister then – very well recently: “There will be a second referendum, not for any noble reason, but because MPs will desperately want to hand the screaming, defecating, vomiting baby back to its parents — the electorate — and let them decide what to do with it.”

One of the many governance problems thrown up by holding a referendum in which the sitting government does not support the change proposition is you are likely to end up with a result like the 2016 one, in which people voted for close to 17 million different versions of Brexit and whatever happens next triggers political disillusionment and creates big problems for any party’s prospects of winning a parliamentary majority.

The best solution from a Conservative Party perspective is to bind both the voters and the other political parties into Brexit through a second referendum.

But there are multiple reasons why this won’t happen: the first, of course, is that there simply isn’t enough parliamentary time between now and the end of the Article 50 process to pass a referendum bill through parliament. And of course, the main reason why the government might want a second vote – parliament can’t agree on the terms of exit – has big implications for whether or not you could pass a referendum bill. From the terms of the question to the way the campaigns are regulated, there is no way that a parliament that cannot agree on the shape of the Brexit deal could agree on the shape of another referendum question.

So it doesn’t seem as if the government can get out of the mess by this route.

Brexit ultras fold and vote for the deal

Could the various Conservative MPs who are currently fulminating about Theresa May’s Brexit proposals fall into line and vote for them? Of course, May’s Brexit proposals as written have no chance of ever coming into being. But some version of Chequers with yet more concessions could end up being agreed too – let’s call it the I Can’t Believe It’s Not The EEA Brexit.

This certainly feels a lot more likely than either of the previous two scenarios. Rebellions always tend to be smaller in the House of Commons than they are in the press as it is an awfully big adventure to actually vote against your government, particularly on a vote like this that could very easily bring it down, force an election and put the opposition in power.

But ultimately May only needs to lose seven Conservatives over the side for her deal to be in jeopardy and I find it hard to see how she will not lose seven. And I doubt that she will be able to rely on Labour’s Brexiteers to bail her out, either: if May’s deal doesn’t convince Jacob Rees-Mogg, it is not going to convince Kate Hoey, Frank Field, Graham Stringer, Ronnie Campbell, Dennis Skinner or any of the other Labour Leavers, either.

Labour MPs break the whip to vote for May’s deal

There are by my count more than 100 Labour MPs who have, at one time or another, rebelled on a Brexit vote – the majority to soften or stop it altogether, but a significant minority to harden or preserve Brexit. Could some of these MPs rebel on the meaningful vote to deliver Theresa May’s Brexit?

It’s difficult to say. When you ask any of these 100 or so Labour MPs, they of course say no. But it is tricky to tell what, faced with the possibility that we will crash out without a deal, the 80 or so Labour rebels who have voted to soften Brexit will do. Would they really all vote to impoverish their constituents to trigger an election? Perhaps not. But it is an awfully big adventure to rebel against your own party on a vote that might help kick the Tories out of office and I cannot see how May will deliver a Brexit deal soft enough to get Labour’s most committed Europeans to back it without tearing the Conservative Party in two: she has no appetite to do this, so I can’t see how it will happen.

What about the 20-odd Labour MPs who have voted in order to harden Brexit? Well, they come in two groups: committed longstanding Brexiteers and MPs who have, for one reason or another, felt that the party’s official stance does not sufficiently respect the referendum result to avoid endangering their seats.

As I’ve already said, you can rule out any of the committed Brexiteers rescuing May’s deal: a deal that is not sufficiently Brexit-y for Jacob Rees-Mogg is not going to be Brexit-y enough for Kate Hoey. But there’s an important corollary to that, too: any Brexit deal that is not sufficiently Brexit-y for high-profile Leave politicians is one that any nervous Labour MP in a pro-Leave seat will feel safe in voting with their party to vote down.

So I don’t see how any of the Labour European rebels, whether Remain or Leave, will be coming to the government’s rescue.

So what’s left?

Transition will continue until morale improves

Ultimately the only way that the government can avoid a massive row over the final relationship with the European Union in this parliament, which cannot agree on the final relationship, is to simply avoid discussing the final relationship in any detail this side of the 2022 election by having a cursory bit of language in the Withdrawal Agreement of the “there will be a trade deal between the United Kingdom and the European Union” variety and for transition to roll over until such a time as one of the major political parties wins a big enough parliamentary majority to overcome its own internal divisions or the conditions of coalition partners to decisively resolve the matter of the UK-EU relationship.

Otherwise known as “sometime never”. 

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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