Monday 14 October 2019

Brexit countdown: Drama, discord, delay as May runs down Brexit clock

The big read: With just four weeks left before Brexit's deadline, Peter Geoghegan reports on the fresh theatrics that have replaced rational debate in Westminster

The fight goes on: anti-Brexit protesters outside the Houses of Parliament in London this week
The fight goes on: anti-Brexit protesters outside the Houses of Parliament in London this week
Theresa May
Irish economic historian Kevin O'Rourke. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Post-imperial questions: arch-Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg.

One issue above all others has divided British politics for over 40 years: Europe. Back in 1975, in the run-up to the UK's first referendum on membership of the then European Economic Community, a youthful opposition leader named Margaret Thatcher called for Britons to vote for Europe "so that the question is over once and for all".

The rest, as they say, is history. Despite a significant majority voting to remain in the nascent European institutions four decades ago, the question of Europe has continued to dog British politics. Thatcher herself largely abandoned her pro-European positions, although never going so far as to advocate leaving the bloc altogether.

The 2016 referendum delivered a vote to leave the European Union but without any clear road map for what that departure should look like. Now, with barely a month to go before March 29, the UK appears no closer to a definite answer to 'the European question'.

This week British politics was, once again, defined far more by heat than light. There was no end of drama in the House of Commons - sackings, late-night votes, unexpected policy shifts - but as so often in this twisting, drawn-out Brexit process, still little sign of what the eventual outcome will be.

Theresa May
Theresa May

The political theatrics started even before the week had properly began. Theresa May decided - once again - to pull the plug on a 'meaningful vote' on the withdrawal bill negotiated with the EU before Christmas. That vote is now scheduled to take place by March 12, just 17 days before what some Brexiteers call 'independence day'.

The Conservative leader began the week maintaining that there was no possibility of extending the Article 50 withdrawal process. On Monday, Donald Tusk described an extension as "a rational decision" at a meeting between leaders of the European Union and the League of Arab States in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. But, the EU president said: "May still believes she will be able to avoid this scenario."

Then, barely 24 hours later, May announced that she might seek an extension after all. The British premier said that extra time might be needed to avoid Britain exiting without a deal. Under her plans, if MPs rejected her deal and no deal, then Parliament could vote to extend the Brexit process.

Hardline Conservative Brexiteers - many of whom back no deal - immediately sensed betrayal. On Wednesday, more than a third of Conservative MPs voted against a government-backed amendment designed to pin May to her pledge to give MPs the chance to extend Article 50.

The scale of the revolt - which included pro-Brexit figures such as former work and pensions secretary Esther McVey - suggests May will struggle to get her party to unify behind her deal when that vote eventually comes.

Some interpreted May's willingness to countenance lengthening the Article 50 process as a sign that, finally, the prime minister has recognised the weakness of her own position and is seeking to compromise across the political aisles. But others viewed the move as a ploy designed to force MPs to make a choice: her deal or no deal.

"There is no change in strategy. As ever - indeed since the very beginning of this process two years ago - she understands that the only positive quality her deal contains is the fact it is better than no deal," wrote political commentator Ian Dunt.

With European elections due at the end of May, Brussels is likely to be very cautious about offering the UK an extension without a clear purpose. French and German leaders warned that the EU would only grant Britain an extension if it could be justified with a clear plan. French president Emmanuel Macron said it would need to result in "new British choices".

Simon Usherwood, lecturer in politics at the University of Surrey says that, for the EU, "a short-term technical extension is fine. A long one for a general election or a referendum is fine. But those things are what are least likely to happen. If the UK says 'let's have a couple of months extension to see what pops up', the EU is going to be wary of that."

May's strategy is clear, says Usherwood. "Get it down to her deal or no deal. But the problem is no one believes her. Either they believe no deal isn't that bad and it is all 'project fear'. Or they think that May hasn't closed down the options and an alternative is possible."

Like the Conservatives, the opposition Labour party's Brexit strategy appeared to change this week - but without altering very much at all. On Wednesday, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said that his party would back a second referendum on European Union membership after his proposals for a customs union with the EU and close alignment to the single market were defeated in the Commons.

Second referendum

Earlier in the week, Labour had announced that it would support another referendum if it could not secure its own Brexit deal in an attempt to stem an exodus of MPs from the party. The party has said that it will table its second referendum proposal within a fortnight.

But many doubt the depth of Corbyn's commitment to another vote. The Labour leader issued an ambiguous statement, saying that Labour would back a new EU referendum but also that the party would continue to push for other plans to stop May's Brexit deal or a no-deal departure. Many in the party suspect that the leader's office will manoeuvre to prevent any such "people's vote". At present, too, there is still no majority in Parliament for another vote.

Meanwhile, in a bizarre move, a ministerial aide was forced to resign over an amendment to protect EU citizens' rights. Alberto Costa was forced to quit his unpaid role as parliamentary private secretary to Secretary of State for Scotland David Mundell even though the government said it would accept his amendment.

The on-going uncertainty at the heart of British government is increasingly being felt beyond the corridors of Westminster. Business leaders talk of already making investment decisions based on the prospect of no deal. Sterling has once again been falling against major global currencies. The indecision brings a human cost, too. For many in Britain - including many in the Irish community - Brexit is causing consternation, insecurity and even leading some to question their own futures.

"People are making calculations about the value of sterling, the direction of the economy, that sort of stuff," says Kevin O'Rourke, an Irish economic historian based at Oxford and author of A Short History of Brexit. "Everything depends on whether or not there is a no-deal Brexit."

Theresa May's difficulties are the product of contemporary realpolitik but also far more fundamental disagreements about the UK's place in the world that fed into the 2016 Brexit vote. The Brexiteer narrative of 'Global Britain' and talk of new trade deals belies the reality that much of the Brexit vote was driven by anxiety, cultural and economic.

Behind the bluster of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson are stark questions about post-imperial Britain's place in the world. Dean Acheson's famous quip that "Britain had lost an empire but not found a role" remains as pressing now as it did when the former US secretary of state spoke at West Point in 1962.

"This is the next stage on from Suez," says Simon Usherwood. "We will end up having these discussions for years. These are the same conversations from the 40s and 50s. 'What's the UK's role in the world?' 'What do we want society to look like?' Only when you answer them can you figure out what you want your relationship with your neighbours to be."

May is arguably the weakest prime minister in modern British history. The Conservative leader presides over a minority government that relies on Democratic Unionist support to govern. Just last week, three Tory MPs left the party to join the opposition on the House of Commons' famous green leather benches.

That there is no majority for no deal in Westminster is an oft-repeated truism. But such repetition belies the reality that by law, Britain will leave the EU on March 29 unless a deeply split parliament can agree on an alternative course of action. So far, as many as half a dozen competing proposals - ranging from leaving without a deal to a second referendum - have support in the Commons, but all are still far short of the numbers needed to pass.

"Everyone thinks that they still have a chance," says Usherwood. "Everyone is waiting for everyone else to blink."

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Brexit begs questions for the Irish in Britain, too. The Irish diaspora is Britain's largest, with an estimated six million people having at least one Irish grandparent. For years, the Irish in Britain faced discrimination. Much of it was almost quotidian - the "no blacks, no dogs, no Irish" in boarding house windows in the 1950s and 60s - but some of it was more overt, especially during the Troubles when the IRA frequently bombed British cities.

The experience of Irish people in Britain has, however, changed markedly. Anti-Irish racism has overwhelmingly been relegated to history, but, says Irish emigrant Evin Downey, Brexit has revealed an "ignorance" about Ireland in mainstream Britain.

"Brexit has really exposed regular British people's ignorance about Ireland," says Downey, who works in Glasgow promoting the Irish culture for Conradh na Gaeilge. The 46-year-old Sligo native has been dealing with a "massive" increase in demand for Irish passports, and even a swell in numbers attending Irish language classes.

But Downey is concerned that Brexit could see fewer young Irish people coming to live and work in Britain. "A lot of young people end up in London and Edinburgh. We have Irish language events in Edinburgh, with a more young professional set.

"And presumably that will all change. Students are a big part, too. If you took away all the Irish students tomorrow, the community would be hit very badly."

The Irish 'community' itself is remarkably heterogenous. Traditionally Irish emigration was concentrated in port cities close to the Irish Sea - Glasgow and Liverpool - as well as major metropolitan areas such as London and Birmingham. Irish emigrants still overwhelmingly move to the British cities, but often rely far less on existing Irish links for work and social opportunities.

Whether Brexit changes how the Irish in Britain feel about where they live is unlikely to become apparent until any deal is finally done, says Mary Hickman, emeritus professor of Irish studies at London Metropolitan University.

"The Good Friday Agreement meant that Ireland faded from view, admittedly it had been a fairly negative view. Also, anti-Irish racism faded as well. There were a lot of good outcomes, but Brexit has shown up that there was only so much change in how Britain viewed Ireland," says Hickman.

"Ireland is missing in the consciousness of a lot of people. There is a lot more knowledge of Britain in Ireland than the other way around."

How Irish people in Britain feel about Brexit is likely to differ widely, especially between different generations, says Hickman. "New migrants from Ireland, in the past 10 years, I am sure there will be a greater sense that they will want to go back to Ireland, but for people who have been here longer it is a different story. With older migrants from the 60s, 70s, 80s, the key issue is the Common Travel Area. So long as that is maintained that will be the key."

Being Irish in Britain does still bring advantages compared to other EU citizenships. Irish citizens, unlike people from all other EU states, do not have to apply for settled status to live in the UK - at least not yet. But for Evin Downey, Brexit has "changed a bit" how they feel about Britain. "Brexit is redefining how people view Britain," he says.

The final outcome of the Brexit process could redefine British politics, too. As Brexit runs into the sand there is, says Simon Usherwood, "a huge gap for a populist" politician along the lines of Donald Trump.

"There is this benign view of the British political temperament that somehow we are immune from populism but that's not true."

With the Irish backstop the biggest sticking point in the Brexit process, a populist firebrand searching for a population to blame could end up looking close to home.

But such fears may yet prove to be unfounded, says Mary Hickman. "I imagine there are (Irish) people who have experienced offhand remarks that are hostile. But even the extreme Brexiteer politicians are waiting to see what the ultimate deal will be."

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