If Brexit happens, the Leave coalition will owe more to the EU than to the British parliament

Leave’s weakness has been compounded by the leadership of both Theresa May and Boris Johnson. 

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There is a paradox at the heart of the Brexit story. If you start in 2005, with the abortive EU Constitutional Treaty and tell a story about what has happened to the EU thereafter, Brexit seems like a five-act drama about to reach its denouement. But if you start in 2014, with Ed Miliband’s Labour ahead in opinion polls, and tell a story about how the Leave electoral coalition could emerge victorious, Brexit appears a near absurd plot twist driven by apparently minor characters. These stories are not, however, incompatible. Indeed, Brexit has become trapped in a narrative impasse precisely because they are both true.

Like several other EU states in the mid-2000s, Britain struggled with the political problems generated by the centrality of treaties in the EU’s decision-making. Tony Blair began his premiership thinking such problems were peripheral. But in April 2004 he promised to hold a referendum on the EU Constitutional Treaty, having previously declared that popular consent to this constitutional change was unnecessary. All of the then three principal Westminster parties went into the 2005 general election with the same assurance, as did the SNP. Much of what has happened since has arisen because the French and Dutch “no” votes on the treaty prevented British voters from expressing their own growing Euroscepticism, and Gordon Brown then decided that Labour’s pledge would not apply to the remarkably similar Lisbon Treaty, which was signed on 13 December 2007.

Without a referendum on Lisbon, both the Conservatives’ opposition to that treaty and the issue of electoral consent were left to fester. When the Conservatives returned to office in 2010 as part of a coalition government, David Cameron judged that some retrospective action was necessary. But there was, in truth, no remedy available, especially since French governments approached the same problem by ordaining more treaties a taboo subject.

Cameron undertook to reclaim from the EU competences on the Charter of Fundamental Rights, criminal justice, and social and employment legislation and return them to Westminster via a treaty that never materialised. Indeed, in pushing the 2011 EU Act, which made a referendum a requirement for any future new treaty, he further weakened his government’s capacity to achieve one.

The eurozone crisis, meanwhile, heaped practical pressure on Britain’s membership. Prior to this – with Britain’s opt-outs from the euro, the Schengen zone, and from the overall area of freedom, security and justice – the single market was the justification for remaining inside the EU with a myriad of complications, rather than moving outside the EU with a trade agreement. But the eurozone crisis politicised the single market by opening the door to discrimination in financial services and generating higher migration from the struggling southern European nations.

Cameron can be criticised for calling the 2016 referendum but it is disingenuous to do so without first reckoning with how far the pre-2004-05 foundations for membership had eroded. Brown may have taken a different path to Cameron by avoiding a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, but it was a decision born of the same basic problem.

Events since June 2016 have rendered any prospect of restabilising British membership near hopeless. Being inside the EU depends on the principal parties in a state treating membership itself as, in effect, a non-political issue. For the foreseeable future the Conservative Party cannot become a pro-EU party. The EU also largely works on the basis that executives have primacy over national legislatures. States with legislatures capable of turning executives into legislative delegates cannot be welcome. Denmark gives its parliament a role in decision-making on EU matters, but has a long history of minority government and a consensual style of politics.

Most stop-Brexit arguments are detached from such EU realities. “Remain and reform” is a wishful fantasy. Reform entails constitutional change via a treaty, and the EU will be fortunate if it ever manages to agree and ratify another treaty.

Yet for all the structural energy propelling Britain out, the Leave position remains politically weak, because its cross-party coalition of support cannot express itself in parliamentary politics. In the 2017 general election, many Leave supporters trusted that they could have their preference on Brexit and another preference on which party they would like to implement it. General elections don’t work that way.

Leave’s subsequent weakness has been compounded by the leadership of both Theresa May and Boris Johnson. May never faced the reality that, as nowhere enough Labour MPs were willing to put the referendum result before party loyalty, she could not pursue a withdrawal agreement that subordinated leaving the customs union to preserving the current Irish border.

Johnson’s personal reputation and moral character are a liability. It is too easy to suggest that if Brexit requires Johnson to get it done then it cannot be legitimate. In all probability, the Commons might have been less cavalier about refusing an election and effectively becoming the government on the issue of Brexit if opposition MPs did not trust they could represent Johnson as a moral danger to democracy.

In the struggle between the two Brexit origin stories, the fact the EU27 has to agree the ending would seem ultimately to advance Brexit. There is much less reason for the EU27 to see Brexit as an issue of who governs in Britain rather than a matter of the EU’s future sanity. If Britain does withdraw, the Leave coalition that found a political voice in 2016 will, in a supreme irony, owe the EU more than the British parliament.

Helen Thompson is professor of political economy at Cambridge University and a regular on the Talking Politics podcast. 

This article appears in the 20 September 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Out of control