Brexit: Year One

Described by the BBC as 'the world's leading expert on referendums', Matt Qvortrup has published several books on referendums. The winner of the PSA Prize for best article in 2012, he is a former advisor to the US State Department. The second edition of Matt Qvortrup’s edited volume Referendums Around the World will be published as a paperback in July 2017.

There has been much drama but few concrete developments after the referendum in June 2016. This is about to change.

“A week is a long time in politics”, Harold Wilson reportedly said. It goes without saying that a year is a cosmetic eternity. And many things have happened since 51.9 per cent of the British voters opted for leave in the Brexit referendum on the 23rd of June 2016. On the political front, David Cameron resigned and all but disappeared from view and the Conservative Party got a new leader – though she wasn’t elected but was chosen by default when Andrea Leadsom withdrew from the race. In the economic sphere, the Pound fell more than ten per cent (as predicted by the ‘remain campaign’) but the stock-market and the exports rose (as predicted by the Brexiteers). And then there was the general election Theresa May called. She expected to win a massive majority. She did not. Now all is in flux. So what has happened after the narrow majority of the Brits voted to leave the EU?

What is most remarkable in the year after the historic vote (the United Kingdom is the first country – apart from Greenland in 1982 – to leave the European Union), is how little has happened.

The whole of the autumn of 2016 was taken up with, well, not very much at all. Theresa May, having campaigned for ‘remain’ came out as a Brexit enthusiast, who vowed to “make a success of Brexit” – and who pledged that “Brexit means Brexit”.

Of course, this tautological statement, as all good logicians would point out, rather begged the question as to what Brexit meant in the first place.

This was not clear at first. Like all leaders of European countries, Mrs. May’s first foreign trip went to Berlin, where she was met with warm words by her German counter-part Angela Merkel. The British press reported how the two leaders – both daughters of country-side vicars – struck an immediate friendship.

What few reported was Frau Merkel’s words that there could be no Rosinenpickerei – “no cherry picking”. Either Britain accepted all of the EU’s rules or regulations – or she had to leave them altogether.

Merkel’s position was clearly intended to be the opening shot in long bargaining. The same was true when other European leaders suggested that Britain should pay a bill of over €60 billion for leaving – later increased to €100 billion.

Theresa May – as was expected – responded that Britain should pay nothing at all. But, contrary to expectations, she did not demand that Britain continued to have access to the internal market – except for the free movement of people. This would have been the obvious demand. Ask for the impossible – and then drop your demands as the negotiations proceed.

The predicament for Theresa May is that many Conservative backbenchers were – and are - ideologically opposed to any kind of future relations with the EU – an organisation many Eurosceptic Tories regard as the Bête noire of international politics.

With a slender majority in the House of Commons, Theresa May was forced to take a hard line; to say that “no deal is better than a bad deal” and to speak in favourable terms about a ‘Hard Brexit’.

This hard line approach continued all the way up to the surprise decision to call a general election on the 8th of June. The intention was to get a mandate for negotiating a softer deal – one that stops short of the rupture demanded by the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party.

At first glance this strategy seemed – and perhaps – seems prudent. The opinion polls suggest that Theresa May would beat her Labour rival Jeremy Corbyn without any difficulty and with little other than her slogan that she provides “strong and stable leadership” – to use her much recycled phrase. Of course, she did not.

What does that mean?

If May had won a majority, she would have had a mandate. This would allow her to force the recalcittant House of Lords to accept her ‘Hard Brexit’.

Constitutionally speaking, the so-called Salisbury Convention dictates that the House of Lords will not vote against a manifesto commitment. But this is only true of the Party in question has won the election. And May didn’t. Hence, Mrs May could expected to run into opposition in the Upper House, if she had persisted with her ‘hard Brexit’ position.  So, after the election, Mrs. May has reverted to a ‘soft Brexit’. Consistency, as Cicero once noted, is not a virtue in a politician!

But can May fore through a softer Brexit that allows Britain to stay within the single market?

This will be tough. It is possible – indeed likely - that a very large number of the new Conservative MPs are Eurosceptics. For them, adherence to their creed and their opposition to all things EU-related is an article of faith, and, crucially one that runs deeper than support for and loyalty to their Prime Minister.

The next few months will be filled with uncertainty that Britain can ill afford. To survive May might have to threaten to hold a referendum on the outcome of the negotiations. She will gamble that the Eurosceptics will not be able to block a good deal, and that the British voters place economic interests above national sentiments. This is far from certain. We are in for a bumpy ride! 

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