Britain needs election to clear Brexit fog

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
November 4, 2016

British Prime Minister Theresa May at a European Council meeting in Brussels in October, with Prime Minister of Luxembourg Xavier Bettel, left. Photo by prime minister's office.
British Prime Minister Theresa May at a European Council meeting in Brussels in October, with Prime Minister of Luxembourg Xavier Bettel, left. Photo by prime minister’s office.

At the heart of Britain’s Brexit drama is a fundamental problem of political legitimacy. None of the main players now in leading roles has any mandate to have their voices heard.

This central void loomed large this week as Britain’s High Court ruled that Prime Minister Theresa May does not have the right to start the process of taking the country out of the European Union by government executive action – “the royal prerogative.” She must, said the court, get approval from parliament before triggering Article 50, the section of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty that begins two years of negotiations on the terms of Britain’s withdrawal.

The ruling has created turmoil, not least because a majority of the 650 members of the House of Commons favours Britain staying in the EU. However, it is now unlikely that MPs would overturn the referendum result. For most of them, dumping Brexit would mean going against the will of the majority of their constituents. What they may try to do is insert qualifications into the negotiations to cushion Britain’s departure, and attempt to pave the way for a solid economic relationship with the EU post Brexit.

May’s government hopes to avoid parliament being able to meddle in the Brexit process and says it will appeal the judgement to the Supreme Court. In all likelihood that will throw out the window her planned timetable to begin negotiating Britain’s departure before the end of next March.

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The High Court’s decision gives every imaginable opponent of Brexit and those who just enjoy obstructionism — from the pro-EU regional governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to recalcitrant bodies like the House of Lords — the opportunity and justification to hobble or stall the process.

The announcement by the Welsh Assembly on Friday that it will seek to intervene in the appeal to the Supreme Court is just an early gust in the wind storm to come.

More than that, the High Court’s decision, and whatever ingredients the Supreme Court may add to the complex political stew, makes it more than ever necessary that May call an election before going much further down the Brexit path. She needs a clear and unassailable mandate from the public to see this process through and wherever it turns out to lead.

At the moment she has nothing, not even a clear mandate from the Conservative Party, whose majority government she leads. May is Prime Minister because after the fratricidal political chaos following the June 23 referendum she was the last person standing.

Former Prime Minister and Tory leader David Cameron resigned in tacit acknowledgement he made a foolish decision to demand the referendum as an attempt to call the bluff of the anti-EU Conservatives among his own backbenchers. Even more stupidly, he didn’t include in the enabling legislation a high threshold for approval of what is a major constitutional change for Britain. And more than that, he ran a feeble “remain” campaign. He deserved the 52 per cent to 48 per cent defeat in the referendum vote.

The two leading Tory supporters of Brexit, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, who lusted to succeed Cameron, managed to knife each other in the back. Other candidates, such as Andrea Leadsom and Liam Fox, tripped over their own shoe laces and withdrew. May, a tepid supporter of Britain remaining in the EU, got the nod from the party as the only leadership candidate left.

In public and in private, May and her close advisers say they don’t want a snap election, and plan on governing until 2020. No doubt part of the reasoning behind that posture is the commendable desire to present a façade of political stability, especially at a time when the British economy is riven by uncertainty and it is unclear what attitude European negotiators will take to the details of Britain’s withdrawal.

Many of the Tory backbenchers don’t want a snap election either. About half them campaigned for Britain to stay in the EU, only to have their constituents vote for Brexit. An early election puts these Tory seats at risk.

But the High Court’s decision – whether or not it is upheld by the Supreme Court – has seriously dented the aura of competence and Thatcheresque I’m-in-charge that has sustained Theresa May and gone some way to calming market fears.

She has a very good chance of benefiting from a snap election. At the moment the Tories have a majority of only 15 seats in the 650-seat house. Recent polls indicate she could increase that majority to 44 seats. The Conservatives’ popularity among voters is the highest it has been since the Falklands War in 1982.

Part of that popularity is the gift of her opponents’ folly.

The main opposition Labour Party is in such disarray that many British commentators are saying the disease is terminal. The main symptom is the leader, Jeremy Corbyn, a man who entered politics on the loony, Trotskyist left wing of the Labour Party in the 1960s and who has seen no reason to change his views since.

Corbyn won the leadership after Labour’s defeat in the 2015 election by dint of a piece of democracy taken to a mad extreme. In 2014, the party replaced the old system by which a leader was selected by weighted ballots giving the parliamentary party, general party membership and affiliated trades unions each a third of the vote. The new system threw leadership selection open to all party members, including those who signed up and voted on-line in return for a small fee. (There are rumours that something called “Tories for Corbyn” invested heavily in on-line memberships, though this is unproven.) The result was that nearly 60 per cent of the over 500,000 “registered” party members voted for Corbyn.

The result appalled the Labour Party caucus. In June, a motion of no confidence in Corbyn was passed by the 212 Labour members of parliament after about two-thirds of the shadow cabinet resigned in disgust. However, what might be called social media democracy again came to Corbyn’s rescue. In another leadership contest at the end of September Corbyn won nearly 62 per cent of the vote.

Despite this, polls and pundits, to say nothing of most of Corbyn’s colleagues in parliament, consider the Labour Party unelectable with him as leader.

The prospects are slightly brighter among Liberal Democrats, who until last year’s election were in coalition with the Tories. The Lib-Dems took a drubbing in that election and were reduced from 57 seats to only eight, mostly to the benefit of the Tories. However, some Conservative MPs in southern Britain are reporting signs of a Lib-Dem revival, but at this point it is more of an irritant than a threat.

It is inevitable that a re-run of Brexit would be the central issue of a snap election. It would be a bitter campaign. There are signs that some people are having buyer’s remorse at having supported Brexit in the referendum, especially as the economic cost of leaving the EU, to say nothing of the end of easy travel to Europe, sinks in. But the core vote remains strong that Britain should regain sovereign powers that have been handed Brussels.

Even though the referendum vote for Brexit was decisive, it was still close enough to portray a country that is sharply divided. Theresa May has tried to avoid exciting that division, largely by playing her cards close to her chest since assuming the leadership. She has uttered a few opaque phrases – such as “Brexit means Brexit” – but given no firm indications on how she will approach negotiations with the other 27 EU members or what her objectives are. Even less apparent is what sort of economic and legal relationship she will seek with the EU when those negotiations begin after Britain’s departure.

In an election campaign she could not avoid being far more open about where she sees Britain going and how.

There is a delightful irony that several of the Brexiteers, who championed leaving the EU on the grounds that it is eroding the sovereignty of the British parliament, are now complaining about the High Court ruling. They argue that as the British voters spoke clearly in the referendum, the government should now launch Brexit through Article 50, and that there is no need for parliament to be involved further.

The contorted logic that parliament has no business getting involved in a matter essential to the sovereignty of parliament is intriguing, to say the least. And it also tends to confirm the more fundamental argument that there are seldom if ever any justifications for referenda in parliamentary democracies.


Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2016

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Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. He is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan,” and has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.


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