VozWire (analysis): Can a new Prime Minister actually change anything on Brexit, or are we in for more of the same?

This article was first published on VozWire.

During the First World War, stalemate on the Western Front brought much of Europe to a complete standstill. German forces, having snatched some land from France and Belgium, were determined not to give up what they had just won. On the other side of the battlefield, the British and French had shored up their defences and were unwilling to concede another inch.

To confound the problem, both sides had developed exciting new weaponry such as machine guns. That meant that the staple military tactics of the day – running towards the enemy as quickly as possible – were no longer quite as cutting-edge as they had once seemed.

The result was years spent pottering about in soggy trenches as soldiers awaited instructions from armchair generals entire countries away and speculated wildly about what might be happening on the other side of the barbed wire. Since neither camp was willing to put their position at any risk, everyone simply stayed put. Swap out artillery fire for explosive headlines on the front page of the Mail on Sunday and relentless mudslinging via Andrew Marr’s sofa and you have a rather accurate image of the current state of British politics.

We are months into an unprecedented parliamentary stalemate, with the convictions of each group seemingly becoming more and more resolute by the week. Thanks to Gina Miller’s courtroom activism and Dominic Grieve’s astute political manoeuvring, no progress can be made on Brexit without parliamentary consent. The House of Commons collectively behaving like a petulant child has therefore caused Brexit to stall.

The British constitution has always worked this way, of course. The role of the legislative branch of government in a parliamentary democracy such as ours is indispensable. Nothing has changed, you might say; except that Brexit has changed everything. Not in constitutional terms, perhaps, but certainly in terms of the political reality. MPs are more powerful than ever before, and British politics will never be the same again because of it.

Every trick in the book has been tried as part of increasingly exasperated attempts to break the logjam. Then, someone wrote some radical new ideas into the inside back cover of the book in crayon, and those were tried too. Sir Oliver Letwin’s seizing control of the Commons agenda to hold so-called indicative votes was nothing less than a minor constitutional revolution.

It was a desperate and concerted effort to find out whether MPs could agree on any aspect of Brexit whatsoever, to the point of ditching the division lobbies and presenting members with a list of eight possible options for how to proceed, all of which were rejected without a flicker of hesitation.

The kicker is that nobody saw this coming. Since Article 50 was triggered in March 2017, it was universally presumed that the UK would leave the EU either with or without a deal two years later. Even the most seasoned analysts and commentators failed to foresee that the government’s deal would be heartily rejected and that No Deal would also be tenaciously blocked, forcing multiple extensions to the exit date.

Parliament only has two division lobbies – one for the “ayes” and one for the “noes”. Until now, that was all that was needed. The government would propose a policy, and MPs would vote for it or against it. On Brexit, though, the choices faced by the House are infinitely more complex than a binary yes-or-no vote. There is no division lobby for “alternative customs arrangements”.

Brexit is a far cry from the tame and simplistic politics of old (read: pre-2016). The agonising complexity of the menu of available options, combined with a hung parliament, a rogue Speaker and record frontbench resignations on both sides of the House means that there is no easy way forward. Dispensing with any whiff of pragmatism, MPs have responded by retreating into their ideological factions and refusing to give any ground whatsoever, à la Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig.

All ten of the candidates to be the next Prime Minister have committed to delivering Brexit, so whoever takes up the leadership mantle next month will have to employ creative methods of some sort to break this unprecedented legislative logjam. The possibilities available to them are far from plentiful.

General election

The government’s confidence-and-supply partner is refusing to back it on its flagship policy. Even with the support of the DUP, the Conservatives’ majority in the House of Commons is razor-thin. Discord within the two main parties is rife; the Tory leadership contest promises to be bruising and Labour’s Brexit policy is anyone’s guess. Fundamentally, MPs and their stubbornness are the problem. So, why not trade them in for some better ones?

There is a timeline in which the new Prime Minister calls a general election, both parties clarify their Brexit position and a clear Commons majority is returned, allowing neat steps forward to be taken. However, as has been made incorrigibly clear, we are living in the Banter Timeline in which everything that can happen to make the political situation yet more convoluted and excruciating, however unthinkable, will happen.

The chance of an election making things any easier for the government is roughly equal to the chance of Lorraine Kelly becoming Prime Minister. Two new parties have already been spawned as a result of Brexit fury, and election polling is terrifyingly volatile. All conventional electoral wisdom is being jettisoned as British voters edge as close to a populist insurgency as is possible under Westminster’s majoritarian system.

Despite their recent self-destructive tendencies, Tory lambs do not vote for the slaughter. Nor do they vote for five years in Opposition under a socialist government, which is arguably worse. All ten leadership contenders have categorically ruled out calling a snap election. The wounds from 2017 cut deep and continue to sting, and horrifying polling showing a thumping resurgence of the potty-mouthed Liberal Democrats and Nigel Farage hoovering up disaffected Tory Brexiteers means that it is hard to see how a general election in the foreseeable future could culminate in anything less than total catastrophe for the Conservative Party.

It is, therefore, not an option that will be immediately available to the next Prime Minister. It is not inconceivable that we could stumble into an election by accident. If that were to happen, all bets would be off. Party splits and mutinies would be near-certain. The dog’s dinner of a parliamentary makeup that would be returned would breach Italian levels of government instability.

Proroguing Parliament

The next Prime Minister will be the fourteenth to serve under Queen Elizabeth II. Their power and the legitimacy of their government will flow directly from the Crown. It is therefore theoretically possible to force through a policy by foregoing parliamentary authority. Since MPs are being obstructive, why not simply send them home for a bit, execute Brexit unilaterally under the royal prerogative and then bring them back?

The monarch is, of course, honourably and necessarily apolitical, which is the first of many reasons why the Queen is not going to celebrate Hallowe’en by dismissing her own government in order to adjust Britain’s relationship with the EU, against the express wishes of the democratically-elected lower chamber. This prorogation would come with a very specific Brexit policy haphazardly conjoined to it with sticky tape, which is a bit like buying a new car and then trying to attach an elephant as a bonnet ornament. The whole thing would be dead on arrival.

What’s more, if a book were to be published now entitled How to Keep the Conservative Party out of Government for a Generation, the prorogation of Parliament would be the subject of chapters one through three. It would instigate a perfect storm of political destruction by alienating the very large wing of the party that is opposed to a hard Brexit by actively ignoring their existence and almost certainly triggering a party split.

Impressively, this move would also work against the interests of the minority within the party whose policy preferences it seeks to cater to since it would profoundly undermine the Brexiteer narrative of a betrayal of democracy over the result of the referendum. It would be fitting of the Banter Timeline for the new Prime Minister to seek to offset concerns about democracy being neglected by taking the most obviously undemocratic approach to government imaginable.

One of the few things about prorogation that is clear is how catastrophic it would be for the Conservative Party. It is deeply ironic, then, that multiple candidates for the leadership of the Conservative Party have indicated that it is an option they are considering. Speaker Bercow has also signalled that he would consider it; that is, he would consider it briefly, and then say no. Bercow would do everything in his power – which is, as we have learned, rather a lot – to stop it from happening, as he declared recently with all his usual verve and vigour.

Citizens’ assembly

Not so long ago, the notion of a citizens’ assembly was a quirky idea floated by people nobody really listened to, like the Lib Dems and the Greens. (That was, of course, before those two parties put in record electoral performances and relegated the governing Conservatives to fifth place.) It was broadly seen as a back-up plan for People’s Vote campaigners who wanted to overturn the referendum result and cancel Brexit by any means available and was rarely taken seriously as a policy proposal.

Now, though, in these desperate times, the idea has burrowed its way into The Political Mainstream, with much of the discussion fuelled by Rory Stewart. In his Remain-leaning pitch to become Prime Minister, Stewart has suggested putting together a randomly-selected jury-like group of British citizens, from across the ideological spectrum, to hammer out their positions on Europe and come to a universally amicable compromise, which could then be presented to Parliament.

Proponents of the idea have posited that a citizens’ assembly could seize the nation’s attention and put sufficient pressure on MPs to compel them to stop obstructing the progress of Brexit and approve the assembly’s fudge. In reality, fierce public debate on Brexit has been repeatedly shown to make MPs more loyal to their specific ideological commitments and less willing to compromise, not vice versa. It seems unlikely, to say the least, that these groups would give up what they have fought for so hard and for so long on the basis of arbitrary advice from a small group of ordinary people.

Not only is it unclear whether anything would be gained from the time-consuming use of a citizens’ assembly, but it is likely that it would make things considerably worse. Stewart and others have insisted that a citizens’ assembly is the height of pragmatism, and that compromise can be reached on issues as contentious as Brexit if only we could sit down and talk about them.

This is a naïve view, to put it kindly. The question of the UK’s relationship with the EU has been top of the political agenda in this country for at least four years now. Over time, the positions have hardened, and the trenches deepened. Now, Nigel Farage and his merry band of populists – who enjoy the heartfelt sympathy of a sizeable wing of the Conservative Party, hence their recent electoral success – have decided that anything other than a No Deal Brexit and a clean break with the EU would be a betrayal of democracy.

Meanwhile, those on the other side of the argument have also become more confident in their political sentiments. The Remainers made the transition from pushing for a soft Brexit to calling for a second referendum and are currently in the process of moving from a referendum position to a full-on, no-holds-barred Remain stance. That has resulted in a bizarre mangling of messages, such as Change UK representatives saying they “stands unequivocally for a People’s Vote and remaining in the EU”, implying that they miraculously already know what the result of a second referendum would be.

There is a true stalemate between the ideological extremes of the debate. The Faragist No Dealers will not consent to anything less than a hard Brexit, and the Remainers are unwilling to countenance any kind of Brexit. The idea that they could converge on a mutually acceptable soft Brexit of some kind is extremely fanciful, and the notion of Parliament rolling over on that basis alone is quixotic.

These three proposals – a general election, proroguing Parliament and a citizens’ assembly – are all ultimately attempts to avoid the will of Parliament. Change the MPs, ignore the MPs, or force the MPs to change their minds. These plans, in addition to being entirely unfeasible, represent a reluctance to engage with the issues directly, opting instead to tactfully dodge them, or close our eyes, cross our fingers and hope they go away.

There are other ideas, of course. Matt Hancock has proposed essentially drowning Parliament in bureaucracy and trying to bluff his colleagues in the Commons into completely reversing their positions. He plans to address profound and widespread concerns about the Irish border by setting up an Irish Border Council. He has chosen, though – judiciously, one might say – not to explain what power this body would have or what difference it could make, choosing instead to gesture vaguely at the technology industry and then phlegmatically move on to another issue.

Michael Gove has indicated that he would be inclined to request yet another extension to the Brexit deadline if renegotiation attempts are unsuccessful. This is despite the fact that Brussels has stated repeatedly that there is no renegotiation to be done, now or ever. This approach, therefore, opens the door to indefinite Brexit delays, chipping away at confidence and prolonging the crippling uncertainty that has gripped the British economy for what seems like an eternity. Surely, there is only a finite amount of road down which this particular can may be kicked.

On the one hand, where we will be in a few months’ time is anyone’s guess. On the other, it is hard to see how we could end up anywhere other than exactly where we are at the moment. British politics has hit a roadblock the size of Russia, and there does not appear to be a viable solution. We are stuck in something between Groundhog Day and 127 Hours, except that no one can agree which arm we should cut off.

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