These days, my bedtime reading consists of books on the EU referendum: The Brexit Club, Bad Boys of Brexit, Unleashing Demons and (currently) All Out War. All have provided another level of understanding to what happened over the past year or two, confirming some suspicions and challenging some assumptions.
Most strikingly so far has been the strategising that took place. From the Tate plot, to the Parliamentary manouvering on the Referendum Bill to the failed coup against Dominic Cummings, there are repeated instances of political actors working two steps ahead of their opposition.
Given the success that such an approach has had, and given the lack of apparent strategising going on in government on Article 50, this post tries to imagine what the two critical groups in Brexit might do, now and in the future. To be clear, I am not suggesting that this is what they are actually going and any examples I provide should not be taken as implementations of such ideas; instead, the intention is to scope out what the path ahead looks like at a critical juncture in British politics, where much feels contingent and open to change.
Let’s start by looking at those who have made most of this strategic approach to date, those pushing for a hard Brexit.
The underlying situation is well-placed for hard brexiteers: they have the momentum from the referendum and own much of the media debate. However, David Cameron’s resignation immediately after the referendum meant that progress to Article 50 has become stalled.
The priority objective here has to be to get to Article 50 as soon as possible. This matters because it locks the UK much more firmly into leaving and because it opens up much more chance of making that departure a full one.
To tackle this last point first, Article 50 has a timetable and an extended number of veto players, anyone one of whom can block the conclusion of a negotiated deal. Failure to reach a deal means that the UK leaves after two years with a rupture. Either that is the objective, or it prompts the kind of crisis talks that lead to a deal in which the UK might have more opportunity to secure the trade-based relationship that many hard brexiteers want. In any case, the absence of agreement moves the UK very firmly – and possibly permanently – into the hard Brexit position.
Hence, getting to Article 50 matters. This means stamping hard on any sign of delay by the government, as well as calling out any and all who question any aspect of the situation, even if they are nominally ‘friendly’. Thus the various court cases might not question whether notification or Brexit should happen – only how – but by ramping up public dissent it makes it much more difficult for anyone to leverage those cases into further diversionary or limiting action.
Likewise, Parliament becomes a battleground, with a hard core of hard Brexiteers able to deprive the government of its majority, possibly to link up with an acquiescent Labour party in inflicting defeats on any area of policy that might cause Theresa May to think hard about defining them. Within the Tory party, that power also potentially extends to raising a challenge to their leader more directly, by triggering a leadership contest. While more of a nuclear option, it does have weight behind it, made more credible by the copious demonstrations of willingness to unleash havoc.
In short, the hard brexiteers probably do best by being unrelenting in their criticism of anyone who doesn’t cleave to the view that Brexit is quick and simple, pushing as hard as possible to get to Article 50, and then being unhelpful in finding a basis for cooperation, so that exit occurs on hard (ie. no) terms.
If hard brexiteers might to push on being obstructive, then those that still want to fight for no brexit have a very different challenge.
For them, the referendum is a big, unavoidable problem and there is no easy way around it. So let’s assume that they will not directly challenge it. This opens up two lines of action, one short-term, the other longer.
In the short-term, the priority would have to be killing the momentum of the process. Cameron’s non-notification on 24th June opened up a big opportunity, but now it needs more work.
The logical first port of call is the Supreme Court next month. While neither party in Miller & dos Santos looks like changing their basic argument, the involvement of representation from the Scottish government and (possibly) the joining of the defeated Northern Irish action mean that there is scope for new elements to be introduced. To pick a recent idea, arguing that Article 50 notification needs not only the Act required by the High Court but also repeal of the 1972 European Communities Act would throw a huge spanner in the works, as this latter might mean years of legal unpicking before notification can happen.
The fall-back would be Parliament and efforts to expand the notification bill not only to improve oversight but to add further hurdles to getting to notification – such as the agreement of devolved assemblies – or the requirement for a second referendum to approve the final deal. Again, there are enough no-brexiteers in Tory ranks to cancel out the government majority, so work on getting Labour on-side would have to be a priority. Here, repeals would need to be multi-faceted, speaking to values and ideas that will resonate strongly with the leadership, i.e. not simply the benefits of EU membership.
Delaying notification is central in all of this, since it opens up the longer-term perspective, namely to effect a change in wider circumstances that make over-turning the referendum more feasible. That might include economic costs becoming more obvious, but also allowing more political events to accumulate. To take the most recent example, a Trump administration might be willing to cut a quick trade deal with the UK, but if that doesn’t happen then it makes the brexiteers’ argument about being a global player more difficult. Likewise, elections in France and the Netherlands in the first half of 2017 open up paths to more radical change within the EU that might render leaving moot.
Both these paths – hard brexit and no-brexit – are difficult and problematic. There is much to question about them and I’d have serious doubts about the viability of either.
However, the middle path – that of a managed brexit – is little easier. There have been some good pieces of late about how to strategise this, but that does not disguise the many pitfalls and bear-traps that exist. Perhaps the value of thinking more radically is that it exposes these, so that we might have more of a chance of getting to a sustainable future policy position.