“Like it or not we live in interesting times …”
Robert Kennedy – June 1966
I am old enough to have lived through and can remember a number of “interesting times” – the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK’s assassination, the Prague Spring, the fall of the Iron Curtain, the release of Nelson Mandela … the list goes on. At the time all seemed like the highest of high drama – all have subsequently had hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of words written about them and all of them, have simply become part of ‘history’. This is not to say that the events were not dramatic at the time nor that they were not of international significance simply that when we are so close to events it is difficult to understand exactly what is going on until we have the benefit of hindsight.
The week of 12th November 2018 in the UK will go down in history as the pinnacle of the political uncertainty triggered by the result of the Brexit referendum in 2016. This week may, of course, yet prove to be a ‘false summit’ with other high points still to be attained but as I write it looks like what Robert Kennedy called “interesting times”. What makes this week interesting, why will historians of the future spend hours analysing these events? To answer that question we probably need to go back to the United Kingdom joining the European Economic Community in 1973 and the 1975 referendum on remaining in this organisation. For the next 40 years elements of, most notably, the Conservative Party have demanded that the UK should leave what had become the European Union. A largely right-wing group of politicians pushed and pushed Conservative Party leaders to offer an “in/out” referendum on the UK’s continued membership of the European Union.
The call for a referendum was taken up by the right-wing popular press in the UK which started to link the question to wider questions including principal immigration and, later, dissatisfaction with austerity. The popular movement gave rise to the creation and growth of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and its populist leader. The rise of UKIP was perceived as a threat to the Conservative Party ’s voter base and Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, gave in to a clamour from within his own party for a referendum which was held in 2016. The result of the referendum was, by a narrow majority, that the UK should leave the European Union. Subsequent to the referendum deep splits have become apparent within the UK population as well as between the regions, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and, indeed, the Conservative and Labour Parties.
Almost two years of negotiation between the UK government and the EU have this week, resulted in Theresa May announcing an agreement for the UK to leave the EU to parliament. An agreement that was, from day one, extremely difficult to negotiate not only because the question was extremely complex but because of the parliamentary weakness and political divisions of the Conservative Party. The agreement – a document of almost 600 pages – has to be agreed firstly by the Conservative Party with Mrs May seeking the agreement, initially, of her Cabinet and then the party as a whole as represented by Conservative MP’s before going to the House of Commons and the House of Lords – so far this process is not going well. Although Mrs May was able to announce that her Cabinet approved the deal with 12 hours four members of her Government had resigned most noticeably Dominic Raab who, as Brexit Secretary was partly responsible for negotiating the deal!
The UK, and especially Theresa May and the Conservative Party, are in a political turmoil which it appears is very unlikely to be resolved either quickly or easily. Somehow Mrs May has to deliver on a referendum result which many believe to be flawed at best whilst, at the same time, attempting to keep her party together and reunite a deeply fractured electorate. This appears, at the time of writing, to be an impossible task because her proposed agreement does not please anyone in her party and Labour plus the other opposition parties stating that they will vote against it. Mrs May still has a majority in the House of Commons through her uneasy and informal alliance with the right wing and intransigent Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland although they too are saying that they cannot agree to support the deal. Add to the opposition parties those within the Conservative Party who do not support the agreement and it is likely that the Commons will deliver a sharp defeat to May.
The situation we now face is that Mrs May says that there are only two alternatives to backing her withdrawal plan firstly a “No Deal” where the UK leaves the EU next March with no plan in place or a “No Brexit” whereby plans to leave the EU are cancelled – May knows that both of these alternatives are unacceptable to various groups in Parliament and is, therefore, attempting to blackmail them into accepting her agreement as the least bad option. The vocal Leave and Remain factions in the country are viewing the situation very differently – the Leave camp are demanding that the UK leaves the EU without a deal whereas the much better organised Remain group are starting to scent victory and expecting that a “No Brexit” option is now the most likely outcome.
The Remain supporters have been demanding a “People’s Vote” not as a re-run of the referendum but on the terms of any withdrawal agreement and with the possibility of a “Remain in the EU” option. Both Mrs May and Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party which forms the biggest opposition have ruled this out. Where does all this leave the UK? The political parties and the country are deeply divided in a way I have never seen before and there is considerable confusion both from a political and economic point of view which is not good however the biggest issue is one of uncertainty – it would appear that nobody knows what is going to happen, political pundits seem unable to agree on a likely outcome. If May loses the support of her party a new leader will be elected by the Conservative MP’s and party members; this new leader would become Prime Minister without the requirement for a General Election. However if the government is defeated on the EU withdrawal agreement, which seems likely, or the Finance Bill which is also a strong possibility, then the opposition parties could seek a “vote of no confidence” in the government – if this is successful then there would be a 14 day period when a new government can be formed or a General Election would have to be called. In the situation of a forced General Election it is unlikely in the extreme that this could happen before February 2019.
If the UK parliament puts itself in the position of having a new Prime Minister or a new government following a General Election which present opinion polls suggest could produce another ‘hung parliament’ with no party having a working majority then there would be less than a month to negotiate a new withdrawal agreement and further negotiations have already been ruled out by a number of European leaders. It is difficult to see which individual would wish to be Prime Minister in the present situation. At present it is also difficult to see how either the Conservative or Labour Parties will come out of this situation intact however as Harold Wilson, another British Prime Minister, said in 1964 “A week is a long time in politics”.