Podcast available here: https://soundcloud.com/user-280580802/13-brexit-snap-elections-are-unlikely-1232019
Britain has been hurled into a chaotic situation with the defeat of the Brexit bill in parliament. One third of the Tory MPs, most of the Labour Party and the smaller parties had voted against the bill as well. Among the Tory rebels many of them had endorsed a vote of no confidence against prime minister May in December. The Tory rebels include the hard Brexiters, who are not opposed to a no deal. In the Labour ranks and portions of the Tories there is a voice for a second referendum, which tends to be supported by people, who favor remain. (Also see my previous post in Liu 2018.)
The option of remain is surprisingly back on the agenda as the British parliament could pull the plug on Article 50 before the March 29 deadline. But Theresa May wants to likely attempt another vote in the House of Commons, possibly until it passes, but it is unlikely that the vast majority of MPs (it went 432 to 202) can be swayed to support May’s bill given that she also had not accomplished any concessions in Brussels to repeal the backstop post-2020. In the backstop, Great Britain would leave the single market and the customs union, while Northern Ireland would remain in it to ensure no hard border in Ireland.
Even worse for May, Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, has tabled a vote of no confidence in the government which could have resulted in snap parliamentary elections, the preferred strategy of Corbyn. From a politically pragmatic perspective, snap elections are the wrong way to go, because it takes a month for the dissolution of parliament to yield in election and so even if the Labour Party won the plurality of the vote, it could not constitute the government in time for the Brexit deadline. Corbyn indicated that his first priority is to expand social policies to reduce poverty and inequality, which are laudable goals, but would still be overshadowed by the impending Brexit.
Corbyn (2019) promised in a recent Labour Party speech that while his first priority was a general election, he thought that “all options would be on the table”, which is a motion for a second referendum, which Corbyn actually personally opposes because he thinks that the Brexit vote needs to be delivered, but would submit to party pressure.
With regard to the confidence vote, May was saved, because while the Northern Irish DUP and the Tory rebels dislike the current deal, they also dislike the notion of a general election, which the Tories rightfully perceive as harming their electoral chances given that voters can squarely blame the Brexit fiasco on the Tories. The motion of no confidence had been voted down. May has been trying to ignite cross-party talks, but Corbyn, the leader of the largest opposition party, has refused any negotiations, citing May’s unwillingness to exclude a no-deal option, but more likely because he can’t wait for the government to fail again in the next parliamentary vote.
Most MPs have the expectation that May will return to Brussels and nix the backstop, but the phalanx of EU officials have rejected this option out of hand, so it is not clear what May can get out of this given that she had returned to Brussels many times since the first parliamentary vote was pushed up in December. On the other hand, forcing the MPs to vote until the deadline is also not a fruitful path.
British businessleaders are upset about the uncertainty the situation creates and demand an extension to the March deadline, but that would require the endorsement of all 28 European parliaments, and I suspect that the EU negotiators sitting on the side with greater leverage are unlikely to give any more concessions to Britain just because they extend the negotiation deadline. Even if the Commons miraculously passes May’s Brexit deal, there is no guarantee that the UK can negotiate a long-term agreement, which makes the backstop all the more likely.
My own stance is that the most rational decision is call for a second referendum, which would allow for remain to be put back on the table. There is still some time before the deadline, and if it were scheduled on March and result in a victory for remain, it would take only a few days for parliament to revoke Article 50, thus putting an end to Brexit. The strategy does carry a risk, however, because the second referendum could also sustain the Brexit decision, while leaving no more time to pass May’s deal, which would result in a hard Brexit, i.e. the restoration of the Irish border and long truck lines between Calais and Dover. If the second Brexit referendum sustains the Brexit decision, the remainers will be totally defeated and Britain will be forced to deliver some form of Brexit, either May’s deal or a hard Brexit.
Hard Brexit will have predictably negative effects on the British economy, resulting in rising prices for essentials, rising unemployment and more deprivation for the poorest, which could shake out well for the Labour Party, which will then almost definitely win the next general elections and banish the Tories to opposition for the next 10 to 20 years. Corbyn is clearly impatient in getting to power, and although he has voiced his staunch opposition to hard Brexit, his unwillingness to endorse May’s deal suggests that a hard Brexit is an ever more likely outcome. A prime minister Corbyn could result in a renegotiation of the hard Brexit and restore the UK membership in the customs union, which could mitigate the shock effect of Brexit.
The next steps are anyone’s guess, but in the tragicomedy of Brexit, keep your popcorn ready.