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The Brexit showdown: can anyone stop Britain crashing out?

A soft Brexit could pass the Commons, but it is no one’s first choice – so all the other factions are running down the parliamentary clock. No deal is a real possibility. 

On 8 February 2017, MPs agreed to leave the European Union without a deal. That is the simple logic of the parliamentary vote, which passed by 494 to 122, approving Theresa May’s plan to invoke Article 50 and begin the formal process of leaving the bloc. It wasn’t just the government front bench that signalled its agreement to a no-deal departure, but the opposition too.

The creation of Article 50 by the Lisbon Treaty provided a way for a nation state to leave the EU, but it is undeniably a blunt instrument. Triggering it, as May did on 29 March 2017, starts a two-year countdown to the exit. At the end of those two years, whether an accord with the remaining states has been reached or not, the departing nation leaves.

That simple fact should inform all discussions about Brexit. Confidently asserting that “there is no majority for no deal” has become a cliché at Westminster, as former Remainers reassure themselves that there are enough serious politicians there to prevent an exit that would lead to shortages of food and medicine. But that is a comforting fiction: since that day in February, we have been heading for no deal unless an alternative can be drafted, agreed with the rest of the EU and passed through the House of Commons. Theresa May has done the first two; but before Christmas, she decided she could not manage the third, and so pulled a scheduled vote on her deal. She is expected to bring the same proposals back to the Commons next week.

Parliament is no longer split on Remain/Leave lines but into four distinct Brexit tribes. Each supports a different outcome: a no-deal exit; exit on Theresa May’s terms; exit into the European Economic Area, remaining in the single market and customs union; and no Brexit at all.

The first group is, as you would expect, intensely relaxed about no deal being the default option. It is also one of the smallest, numbering no more than 60 MPs. Its main organising locus is the European Research Group (ERG), the hard Brexit faction of the Conservative Party, led by Steve Baker and Jacob Rees-Mogg.

The ERG’s stock is low at Westminster. On 15 November, Steve Baker – the MP for Wycombe, the ERG’s chief organiser and until then regarded as one of parliament’s most effective operators – declared that he had the numbers to trigger a vote of no confidence in May’s leadership of the party. He was wrong. Graham Brady, the chair of the 1922 Committee and custodian of the process, later told the House magazine that Baker was one letter off the 48 he needed. Close but not close enough.

It took until 12 December for the magic number of 48 to be reached, by which time Baker’s reputation as a masterful backroom strategist was in tatters. May won the resulting vote by 83.

However, the received wisdom has been too quick to write off Baker and the ERG. Its strength has never come from Baker’s ability to command a majority within the Conservative Party, or to persuade middle-ground opinion within it, let alone outside it, but from the use of parliamentary procedure to leverage the strength of his faction.

Yes, May is still party leader and Prime Minister. But it was thanks to the machinations of the ERG that the vote to trigger Article 50 was taken so quickly after the referendum result in 2016. Britain’s exit is codified into British law and only a vote of the whole House can undo that, further complicating the path to stopping Brexit. Even if our exit is softened, it seems likely that the ERG will get at least half of what it wants – exit from the political project – and it could yet secure a no-deal exit.

It is harder to see how the ERG’s parliamentary opposites – such as the People’s Vote campaign, which holds its meetings in the same parliamentary committee-room corridor as the ERG – will achieve their aims. The People’s Vote campaign’s proposed alternative to no deal is no Brexit at all, to be achieved by another referendum. But the obstacles to the latter are large and probably insurmountable: the executive, in the form of Theresa May’s Downing Street operation, would have to facilitate one. Views inside the No 10 team are mixed, and many cabinet ministers would quit the government rather than support another referendum. Scarcely more than one in ten Conservative members support a referendum rerun, according to the Party Members Project, a long-running study into the preferences of party activists funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

Conservative opposition to a referendum isn’t solely confined to the ambitious. After the experience of the 2016 campaign, some MPs oppose referendums full stop. One MP recently said to me, “I hated everything about it, not just the outcome.” Others believe that a second vote would return the same result as the first: a win for Leave.

That lack of support is mirrored in the Labour Party. The ESRC’s survey found that most Labour members support another referendum, but it is not their top political priority. Given a free choice, they would vote to allow Jeremy Corbyn – an instinctive Eurosceptic who has no desire to reopen the referendum question for both tactical and political reasons – free rein on the policy, rather than force him to support a second vote.

Many Labour MPs would back a second referendum if they thought it could be won for Remain; unlike their Conservative counterparts they would have little to fear from their members if they did. Still, scepticism is widespread. One MP describes referendums as “a shit idea”. Others agree with Tory Remainers that their side would simply lose again.

The People’s Vote campaign has done an impressive job of keeping the idea of a second referendum in contention, but the blunt reality is that it does not have a majority in parliament. Nor does the campaign have the support of either the government or opposition front benches, and is unlikely to secure it. And pro-second referendum MPs are themselves divided on how best to succeed. Some adopt Theresa May’s tactic, in hoping that fear of the no-deal cliff edge will make their proposal seem more attractive. For that reason, they are publicly denigrating not only May’s deal but also proposals for a softer Brexit that would keep the United Kingdom in the European Economic Area (EEA). Their number includes Chris Bryant, the Labour MP for Rhondda; Jo Johnson, the Conservative MP for Orpington; and Peter Kyle, the Labour MP for Brighton and Hove.

That approach mystifies not only advocates of a so-called Norway-type exit but many of their fellow second referendum advocates, too. “I don’t like the EEA but you have to have a fallback,” says one. “I think what Chris [Bryant] and others are doing is very dangerous.”

Most MPs, unless they are supporting a no-deal exit, know full well that they need a plan B and are trying to keep all their options open. The average Labour MP is, on this issue, pretty closely attuned to Ed Miliband, who told the BBC Today programme on 8 January that a second referendum was a “last resort” but his own preference lay elsewhere. Even some of the more full-blooded second referendum advocates are avoiding too much criticism of the EEA proposal, recognising that they might later have to support it as the least worst option.

Those taking a self-denying ordnance include Chuka Umunna, who conceded on 6 January on Sky News that the People’s Vote campaign does not have the strength in parliament to trigger a second vote, at least in present circumstances. This conviction is shared by his fellow Labour MPs Anna Turley, Bridget Phillipson and Phil Wilson.

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The question that has to be asked then is this: is there any potential deal that is acceptable to the EU and could also command a majority in the Commons? That is the only way to avoid no deal, after all.

Theresa May’s negotiation with the EU27 has produced two documents. The first is the withdrawal agreement, which governs the terms of the UK’s exit from the EU and contains provisions to guarantee that there will be no border on the island of Ireland. (If trade talks break down or the UK does not sign a trade deal with Europe, Northern Ireland would remain in the customs and regulatory orbit of the EU.) This is the so-called backstop that her coalition partners in the Democratic Unionist Party and so many of her own MPs loathe.

Regardless of who is in Downing Street, the contents of that accord will not change. What is still up for grabs is the second document negotiated by May: the future declaration, 48 pages of text that set out in broad outline what the final relationship between the EU and the UK would look like.

As drafted, that relationship would reflect May’s interpretation of the 2016 referendum result: free movement of people would end but the UK would have as close a relationship as possible to the EU. It would mean a substantial long-term reduction in economic trend growth in the UK (because of greater friction in trade) and continued submission to trade and state aid rules set by the EU. (Corbyn is opposed in particular to these state aid rules, which he thinks would prevent him pursuing an active industrial strategy.)

The Prime Minister’s withdrawal agreement has no chance of passing the House of Commons in its current form, and she could delay the vote again to avoid an inevitable defeat. However, many MPs believe that would trigger a general election, because enough of her own party would turn on May, in the hope of preventing no deal.

May’s best hope is that, as the clock ticks ever closer to a no-deal exit, MPs will in desperation vote for her deal to avoid the terror of the cliff edge. The problem is that her accord will never be able to pass with the votes of Conservative MPs alone, and she will have to concede something to allow Labour – whether through a backbench rebellion or action from the leadership – to vote it through.

What could that be? Parliament’s last Brexit tribe, the Norway Plus group, believes it has the answer. MPs such as Nick Boles want to rewrite the political declaration to declare their intention to join the EEA. That would mean a close economic relationship that keeps the UK outside “ever closer union” and also reclaims a degree of political sovereignty.

Unlike its opposite numbers in the People’s Vote campaign or the ERG, the Norway Plus group tends not to meet in committee rooms but in members’ offices, in gatherings that are often standing-room only. On one occasion, in the office of Nicholas Soames, the Conservative MP for Mid Sussex, the meeting improbably took place amid the smell of burning incense. (Many offices in the palace of Westminster, an old building next to a dirty river, do not smell as good as you might hope.) Most meetings take place in the offices of Boles, a prominent ally of David Cameron and George Osborne. He is the group’s co-chair along with Labour MP Stephen Kinnock, son of Neil Kinnock. Incense is never burned, but tea is served.

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This group’s proposed solution could command a majority of the Commons and its champions are well-connected within both parliamentary parties. In the cabinet, they are in regular communication with Amber Rudd and Michael Gove, while on the opposition front bench, John McDonnell is in informal contact.

The group secured a significant coup on 7 January with the public support of Robert Halfon, the Conservative MP for Harlow in Essex, and Lucy Powell, the Labour MP for Manchester Central. They are co-authors of a new pamphlet on how the EEA could work for the United Kingdom.

The support of these two prominent MPs gave a boost to the campaign, albeit for different reasons. Halfon, an advocate of “white van conservatism”, is from the middle of the Conservative Party and is precisely the type of supporter that any softer Brexit needs if it is to pass the Commons. Powell is a former director of Britain in Europe, which campaigned to take the UK into the euro.

Powell represents one of the most pro-Remain constituencies in the country. Her pro-European bona fides make it easier for Labour MPs to row in behind the EEA option.

Norway Plus, as its advocates concede, has a problem: it is not the first choice for many MPs. But it may well be the only choice that can command a majority in parliament and the executive.

As matters stand, the other three factions – no deal, May’s deal and no Brexit – believe that their interests are best served by prolonging the threat of “going over the cliff”. The Brexit stand-off could yet end with the surprising, and disastrous, triumph of the ideologues of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s European Research Group.

Stephen Bush is NS political editor

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.

This article appears in the 11 January 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit Showdown