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Anyone in hope of elucidation on Brexit this week will have been a bit disappointed, even by recent standards.
With submissions to the High Court providing no killer arguments either side – and both sides firmly stating that any loss will be challenged up to the Supreme Court and an immigration debate that has sunk to the level of whether someone looks like a child or not, there has not been much advance in our understanding of what might happen, or how.
To underline the point, a discussion this morning at Chatham House on public opinion pointed to further issues.
Put briefly, the British public doesn’t really know what it – collectively – wants from Brexit, except that it wants something substantially different from what currently exists in the UK-EU relationship.
Immigration is important, but less so when placed against assorted trade-offs, and immigration control might be just part of a bigger competence issue about the ability of a government to make decisions for itself. And all of it might collapse or change radically when confronted with some concrete proposition.
This matters for a variety of reasons. Most obviously, if people were voting to take back control, then that becomes very difficult if there’s no consensus about what that control might be used for. It also complicates matters for a government that is now committed to triggering Article 50, but with no fixed agenda of objectives. And in the end it will mean that a sizeable chunk of the population is going to end up disaffected by how things have turned out, to the detriment of the democratic system as a whole.
But let’s step back, before we end up catastrophizing some more. Politics is always a contingent and conditional process, a series of best guesses about the present and the future. Yes, the scale of the contingency is greater on this occasion, but the principles remain the same. So let’s try to sketch out a muddling-through path for Theresa May.
The starting point is probably the inchoate nature of public opinion. If we assume that people will follow May’s lead, because she seems to know what she’s doing and she has the confidence of her government, then the priority then becomes keeping that confidence. Thus, any Article 50 deal will need to keep backbenchers onside, rather than any particular voter demographic.
Following on from this, we might assume that the public’s attention is limited and will be swayed – in part, at least – by broader concerns over whether one’s job is secure, or the volume of immigration is falling (which it might, given the fragile state of the economy). It’s not such a stretch to suggest that the government might take the view that as long as they look like they are on the Brexit case, people will give them a broad pass.
Based on these assumptions, two paths offer themselves.
The first is the semi-permanent transition. Here, the UK keeps its Brexit wishlist short, when making its notification, focusing on a stronger brake on free movement. The EU27 then take that as a lead and offer a simple deal under Article 50, with the bare minimum of elements. This includes budgeting, staff pensions for UK nationals in the institutions and re-location of EU agencies out of London, as well as a mechanism to set in train a new negotiation for the relationship. In short, the UK becomes a member in all but name, losing representation and voting rights, but with a clear process from moving to a new relationship.
Because that new negotiation will be very big and complex, it will also be slow, with the capacity to last at least a decade. The government would defend itself by saying it had secured formal exit and a limit of immigration and was working now on getting the best deal for the country, and would then largely hope that this would bleed the eurosceptics’ blood. In time, attention would drift and a solution favourable to the UK and EU27 would emerge in its own time, away from the heat of recent years.
The problems are obvious: flashpoints could occur at any stage, and carrying the process out over more than one Parliament would risk some other government taking it somewhere unexpected (or unwanted). In particular, the meagre majority that the Conservatives currently enjoy make it easy to force matters on the Cabinet, which itself is split in various exciting ways.
Also problematic would be that limiting the size of the Article 50 deal to a bare minimum also limits the UK’s leverage, since it pushes the new relationship into a period when it is formally a third state, rather than a member state.
Which leads nicely to the second option, namely the Article 50 splurge. Here, the government puts everything into its Article 50 requests and tries to do it all in one go. This cuts down the transitional problems, maximises what influence the UK has over matters and cuts the backbench grumbles to a minimum.
It also makes any discussion about extension of Article 50 more viable, especially if there is seen to be good progress in resolving issues. Path-dependency suggests that the EU27 will not want to throw away two years of negotiation unless it looks fatally flawed, especially if the rest of the political agenda continues to demand their time. It cuts out the need for transitional arrangements, because the UK would remain a member state until its conclusion.
Which is the obvious flaw in this.
To return to the start of this, the big question is going to be what can be sold by May to her party and (then) to the public. At the moment, the betting would have to be on the former being more of a problem than the latter. As Daniel Korski’s very frank piece today underlines, not having a strategy and a vision can come at a very high price.
Of the many, many frustrations about Brexit, one of the most paradoxical has been the lack of scrutiny.
On the one hand, there has been almost endless public criticism and debate about the outcome of the referendum, with endless holes being picked in whatever is offered up by those in positions of power. But on the other, until now that has not translated into official mechanisms for holding people to account.
In part that has been the result of a noticable degree of denial by Remainers: during the summer, the efforts seemed to be poured into reversing or over-turning the June vote. Certainly, in the public events I spoke at, the large majority of ‘questions’ from the floor where about this.
But as autumn has arrived and it has become clear that May is determined that Brexit means Brexit and that no viable means exists to block or go back on the expression of public will. Coupled with a Labour leadership that can finally look beyond its own navel and the nominal establishment of a timetable for Article 50 notification, and we finally see moves to get scrutiny in motion.
Of course, this week’s events are somewhat coincidental: the High Court case starting today has been in the making almost since the June referendum itself. The case – to determine whether the government needs Parliamentary approval before Article 50 notification – is important in setting down a marker, both for the government and those challenging it. For the latter, the case represents a clear opportunity to establish clear legal principles that can be relied upon further down the process of withdrawal. For the former, it will highlight how important they feel it is to retain as much control as possible over leaving. One might take a cynical position and argue that the case is useful for the government should it feel like footdragging, because a defeat would give it good reason to delay further on notification, especially if it challenged the outcome: respecting the rule of law is a pretty good defence, especially if you’ve draped yourself in the flag of sovereignty.
Meanwhile, the installation of Keir Starmer as Shadow Brexit Secretary last week has led to the rapid push to both a debate in the Commons and a list of 170 questions posed to the government. These, together with some more pointed challenges by Jeremy Corbyn in Prime Ministers Questions, all suggest that someone within the senior Labour team has developed a plan of action that is acceptable to the leadership. Most notably in this, Remainers in other parties are working with Labour to coordinate their challenges and attacks, which raises the spectre of no Commons majority for May, should it come to a vote. Hence the unwillingness to stand in the way of the Labour text on the need for Parliament scrutiny.
Important in all this is a tack by Remainers to present themselves not as Remainers but as people desirous of the best outcome of the Brexit negotiations. Repeatedly in yesterday’s debate, speakers made the point that they did not want to stand in the way of the referendum outcome, but did want to make sure it was achieved with the minimum of problems and the maximum of benefit for the UK. If we take this at face value – and there’s no good reason not to at this stage – then having more eyes on the situation must ultimately be to everyone’s advantage.
The niggle – and it’s one that some as taking as a very big niggle – is that this is a subtefuge for obstruction; in askign for scrutiny, the ‘bremoaners’ are actually just chucking obstacles in the road to serve some ultimate agenda of staying in the EU. This is a classic play from the more paranoid fringes of the eurosceptic movement, who see plots and plans in everything. That this comes after a year that has demonstrated more clearly than ever that no-one has a plan, let alone a plot, should serve as a benchmark of how to judge this.
The ultimate difficulty here is the one that was immediately obvious after 23 June: namely that the referendum did not have “a meaning”. Instead, it was a vast array of ideas and attitudes, all collapsed into the binary of Leave/Remain. All that has followed has been an attempt to define and claim the meaning of the vote, so as to control the debate and the direction of travel. While May has done her level best to lead on this – seen most clearly in her speech to the Conservative party conference – she is not able to determine it all.
As Parliamentary scrutiny picks up and as more political actors put their efforts into trying to deal with the nuts and bolts of Brexit, so a new, broader consensus is likely to emerge. But time is running out for those who want to have an impact.
The announcement by Diane James that she was ‘not formalising’ her election as leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) has brought the party back into the public eye, albeit for bad reasons.
Citing a mix of lack of support within the senior ranks of the party and personal reasons, James has become the latest in a long line of UKIP leaders who have found the position to be one fraught with problems and difficulties. Indeed, one of the most persistent characteristics of the party has been precisely the travails of finding (and keeping) an effective leader.
Since its foundation in 1993, UKIP has experienced problematic handovers in almost every single instance, beginning with the ejection of Alan Sked – the initiator and first leader of the party – in 1997, over charges of BNP entryism and poor electoral performances. Subsequent appointments led to repeated internal struggles for control, with legal challenges, splits and departures and – in one case – a wholesale, over-night removal of the party headquarters from London to the West County.
Even in the more recent years of UKIP’s ascendancy, managing the leadership role has been problematic. Nigel Farage stepped down to contest the 2010 General Election, only to make a prompt return after the poor showing of Lord Pearson, who appeared unaware of the party’s manifesto. Farage’s subsequent attempt to step down after the 2015 election resulted in his ‘unresignation’ a few days later.
As an exposition of the difficulties of running a modern political party, UKIP makes an excellent case study, but it also raises the question of why this should be.
A useful starting point for this is a reflection on the nature of the party itself. Unlike all its national competitors, UKIP is not an ideologically-driven party – or, at least, not driven by any one ideology. Its roots lie in the mobilisation of anti-European Union sentiment in the early 1990s, at the time of the Maastricht Treaty and the perceived lack of effective parliamentary challenge to a process that was gained rapidly in public attention. Sked’s original vision for the party was one of securing enough seats in the European Parliament – and then not take them – to force a constitutional crisis and the UK’s exit. Even as that approach softened over time, it was only in the mid-2000s that any work began on what else the party might be for.
The strength of this approach was that it created a very broad church. Nigel Farage was the first leader to effectively capitalise on this, making UKIP a home for activists and voters from across the political spectrum, giving them a space to voice their discontents and disaffection with all matters political. As demonstrated so clearly in Revolt on the Right, this allowed the party to capture many old Labour voters in the early 2010s who had felt ‘left behind’ by the political system and social change.
The price that the party has paid from this is two-fold.
Firstly, the question of “what is UKIP for and about?” is essentially contested in the party. There are several different elements within UKIP – from libertarians and conservatives to socialists and anti-establishmentarians – none of which has achieved the predominance found in other parties. Moreover, much of these elements is defined by what is disliked and opposed (unlimited immigration, membership of the EU, ‘the system’), rather than by what should come in their stead.
Consequently, any UKIP leader needs to have either the ideological flexibility to fudge positions that keep these different groups together or the institutional power to override opposition. Arguably, Farage has been the only leader to have maintained both of these elements throughout his time in office (which partly explains why he was in office for so long).
Secondly, the constant evolution – in policy terms and membership – has made it hard to develop a central cohort of activists who can provide leadership (and leaders). In this, UKIP suffered particular problems in its early years by creating a very open and large organisational structure, which meant that almost anyone who wanted could walk into a senior job role. As anyone who works with any organisation knows, ambition is not the same as ability, and the balancing of power found in UKIP typically resulted in gridlock, especially when the leadership was up for grabs.
While Farage has cut back substantially on this, centralising a lot of power in the leader’s office, the tensions remain, not least between the leadership, the National Executive and the MEPs (who still operate at arm’s length from the rest of the party). Couple this to be huge increase in members of recent years and the need to populate numerous local branch offices and once more the recipe is for personality clashes and jostling for position.
Indeed, Farage’s strength of control has further contributed to James’ downfall in three distinct ways.
Most obviously, Farage’s ruthless winnowing away of any internal challengers to his position over the years meant that the 2016 leadership election was a choice among a much weakened field. Succession planning is effectively absent in the party culture, so the people with the most public profile and experience were those most likely to find themselves excluded from running. Theshambles of actually determining who could run was merely the icing on the cake.
Beyond this, Farage has continued some of his public profile. While not exactly backseat-driving, à la Thatcher, his willingness to step in front of a camera was always going to remind party members of his existence. This has been reinforced by the activities of Aaron Banks – UKIP’s main financial backer – to set up a new movement on the basis of his Leave.EU group from the referendum, in which Farage might be the lead figure.
Finally, the power of Farage as a charismatic politician, especially among UKIP supporters, remains strong: his exit after the EU referendum was a good example of leaving on a high. This, together with his track record of stepping back ‘for the good of the party’, means that he remains a viable option to pick up the pieces. This has meant a good deal of pressure on the party to bring back its star player, undermining James’ position.
At the time of writing, UKIP has announced that Farage will be stepping back in on an interim basis. However, whether this turns into something more permanent, or there is another leadership contest, the party is going to find that its difficulties have not gone away at all. None of the points outlined above have changed since last month and UKIP still has many big questions to get to grips with. Whoever the next leader is going to be, that will be a very tall order.
This post was originally written for the PSA Blog.