This blog is hosted on Ideas on EuropeIdeas on Europe Avatar


The Great British Muddle Through


Anyone in hope of elucidation on Brexit this week will have been a bit disappointed, even by recent standards.

With submissions to the High Court providing no killer arguments either side – and both sides firmly stating that any loss will be challenged up to the Supreme Court and an immigration debate that has sunk to the level of whether someone looks like a child or not, there has not been much advance in our understanding of what might happen, or how.

To underline the point, a discussion this morning at Chatham House on public opinion pointed to further issues.

Put briefly, the British public doesn’t really know what it – collectively – wants from Brexit, except that it wants something substantially different from what currently exists in the UK-EU relationship.

Immigration is important, but less so when placed against assorted trade-offs, and immigration control might be just part of a bigger competence issue about the ability of a government to make decisions for itself. And all of it might collapse or change radically when confronted with some concrete proposition.

This matters for a variety of reasons. Most obviously, if people were voting to take back control, then that becomes very difficult if there’s no consensus about what that control might be used for.  It also complicates matters for a government that is now committed to triggering Article 50, but with no fixed agenda of objectives. And in the end it will mean that a sizeable chunk of the population is going to end up disaffected by how things have turned out, to the detriment of the democratic system as a whole.

But let’s step back, before we end up catastrophizing some more. Politics is always a contingent and conditional process, a series of best guesses about the present and the future. Yes, the scale of the contingency is greater on this occasion, but the principles remain the same. So let’s try to sketch out a muddling-through path for Theresa May.

The starting point is probably the inchoate nature of public opinion. If we assume that people will follow May’s lead, because she seems to know what she’s doing and she has the confidence of her government, then the priority then becomes keeping that confidence. Thus, any Article 50 deal will need to keep backbenchers onside, rather than any particular voter demographic.

Following on from this, we might assume that the public’s attention is limited and will be swayed – in part, at least – by broader concerns over whether one’s job is secure, or the volume of immigration is falling (which it might, given the fragile state of the economy). It’s not such a stretch to suggest that the government might take the view that as long as they look like they are on the Brexit case, people will give them a broad pass.

Based on these assumptions, two paths offer themselves.

The first is the semi-permanent transition. Here, the UK keeps its Brexit wishlist short, when making its notification, focusing on a stronger brake on free movement. The EU27 then take that as a lead and offer a simple deal under Article 50, with the bare minimum of elements. This includes budgeting, staff pensions for UK nationals in the institutions and re-location of EU agencies out of London, as well as a mechanism to set in train a new negotiation for the relationship. In short, the UK becomes a member in all but name, losing representation and voting rights, but with a clear process from moving to a new relationship.

Because that new negotiation will be very big and complex, it will also be slow, with the capacity to last at least a decade. The government would defend itself by saying it had secured formal exit and a limit of immigration and was working now on getting the best deal for the country, and would then largely hope that this would bleed the eurosceptics’ blood. In time, attention would drift and a solution favourable to the UK and EU27 would emerge in its own time, away from the heat of recent years.

The problems are obvious: flashpoints could occur at any stage, and carrying the process out over more than one Parliament would risk some other government taking it somewhere unexpected (or unwanted). In particular, the meagre majority that the Conservatives currently enjoy make it easy to force matters on the Cabinet, which itself is split in various exciting ways.

Also problematic would be that limiting the size of the Article 50 deal to a bare minimum also limits the UK’s leverage, since it pushes the new relationship into a period when it is formally a third state, rather than a member state.

Which leads nicely to the second option, namely the Article 50 splurge. Here, the government puts everything into its Article 50 requests and tries to do it all in one go. This cuts down the transitional problems, maximises what influence the UK has over matters and cuts the backbench grumbles to a minimum.

It also makes any discussion about extension of Article 50 more viable, especially if there is seen to be good progress in resolving issues. Path-dependency suggests that the EU27 will not want to throw away two years of negotiation unless it looks fatally flawed, especially if the rest of the political agenda continues to demand their time. It cuts out the need for transitional arrangements, because the UK would remain a member state until its conclusion.

Which is the obvious flaw in this.

To return to the start of this, the big question is going to be what can be sold by May to her party and (then) to the public. At the moment, the betting would have to be on the former being more of a problem than the latter. As Daniel Korski’s very frank piece today underlines, not having a strategy and a vision can come at a very high price.


Recent Articles

Scrutinising Brexit

Published on by | No Comments

Of the many, many frustrations about Brexit, one of the most paradoxical has been the lack of scrutiny. On the one hand, there has been almost endless public criticism and debate about the outcome of the referendum, with endless holes being picked in whatever is offered up by those in positions of power. But on the other, […]

Let’s play Euro-dominos!

Published on by | No Comments

Due to circumstances beyond my control, I found myself listening to the Today programme this morning, with Matteo Renzi being interviewed. Three points struck me about this. One was that I must try listening to the radio more often. More consequentially, the second was that Renzi seemed adamant about the need to disconnect the two […]

New directions for British euroscepticism

Published on by | No Comments

A few weeks ago, I wrote on the challenge facing the British eurosceptic movement: the achievement of victory in the referendum removes the key binding agent in the coalition of interests, with many now likely to redirect their activity elsewhere. Since then, we’ve seen some marginal movements in affairs, including the election of Diane James to lead UKIP and […]

More Brexit clusterf**king

Published on by and | 2 Comments

So it turns out that Usherwood’s Law is simply that things can always get worse. It’s not quite my childhood dream, but (appositely) it could be worse. Since publishing The Brexit Clusterf**k earlier on, I’ve had lots of feedback on Twitter, essentially boiling down to “you forgot some other things”. Since I’m apparently on a roll here, […]

The Brexit clusterf**k

Published on by and | 1 Comment

UPDATED: read a second installation here, after all your comments.   Summer is over: winter is coming in the world of Brexit. As politicians return from their sojourns in the sun, they open up their emails and briefings to find that things are going about as badly as they could. I’m writing this at the end […]

Looking forward from the EU referendum

Published on by | Comments Off

A version of this post was presented to the Conway Hall Ethic Society on 24 July 2016.   The history of UK-European relations has been one of muddling through. At no point in the past 70 years has there been a plan or a strategy: that’s as true today as it was in the 1950s. And the […]

May’s foreign policy gambit

Published on by and | Comments Off

Another day, another upheaval in British politics. In the 21 days since the EU referendum, we’ve had more changes of more consequence than in any time since the second world war. All very grand to say that, but where are we going with all this? Until yesterday, it was very hard to say, precisely because […]

What’s the EU going to do?

Published on by and | Comments Off

It’s telling that almost all the British public debate since Friday’s announcement of the result of the EU referendum has been about British politics: who’s succeeding David Cameron? What’s happening to Jeremy Corbyn? Or Scotland? Almost nothing has been discussed about how this decision will play out with the rest of the European Union. At […]

Subscribe to a fortnightly email featuring posts from Ideas on Europe hosted blogs

UACES and Ideas on Europe do not take responsibility for opinions expressed in articles on blogs hosted on Ideas on Europe. All opinions are those of the contributing authors.