Issue 185: 2019 01 17: Brexit

UK as part of Europe

17 January 2019


Moving forward.

By John Watson

Where now?  The possibility of Mrs May getting her agreement through the Commons has disappeared, so what does that leave us with?  Another round of negotiation with the EU?  An exit without an agreement?  A withdrawal of the article 50 notice?  A general election?

Everyone has their preferences and these are largely dictated by political beliefs but in truth the immediate issues are more to do with mechanics than philosophy.  So rather than thinking about the various outcomes let’s approach matters from a different angle by asking where the authority is to be found which will drive a solution.

Following the failure of the no confidence motion, formal authority rests with the prime minister as the person able to command a majority in the House of Commons.  But these are not normal times and that authority is purely formal.  Although Mrs May may be able to command a majority on a confidence motion, she cannot do so on the major issue of the day.  That is the authority which counts and, unless she can recover it very quickly, she needs to go, not because she has failed to sell her deal but because there is no point in her remaining.

Unfortunately there is not much time.  A successful leader needs to bind in those of disparate views and parties and make them feel that they are contributing to something which transcends them.  Sometimes the process can involve a new institution.  The Order of the Garter was founded by Edward III as part of his highly successful strategy of welding together a fractious aristocracy for a drive against the French.  But Edward had enormous charm and a very consensual approach.  Mrs May may well have the first, but she certainly lacks the second.  Had she involved the unions and other parties from the start she might have achieved much, but alas she did not do so.  Her instinct to keep things close has always been her undoing – remember the dependence on Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill which lay behind her flawed election strategy- and so it is again.  So, alas, it will always be and although she now has a last opportunity to send matters forward on the path she prefers, that is as far as her future contribution goes.

So, if not May, who?  “Cometh the hour; cometh the man” the proverb rather optimistically predicts but where is this man or I suppose woman who can step into the breach?  Alas, there is no sign of him or her at present.  None of the other party leaders comes across as capable of binding the diverse political factions together and although there may be great politicians in the woodwork it will take time for them to emerge.  “Après moi, le hole in the ground” as May might say if she was Louis XV.

Prime Ministers aside, then, where else should we look for authority?  If we ignore those who want exotic but unrealistic combinations of having and eating cake, the House of Commons is split three ways, those who would withdraw the article 50 notice, those who would adopt May’s deal and those who would prefer a hard Brexit to either of these.  There seems to be a majority against each option but no majority in favour of any of them.  The only way of obtaining clear guidance in this sort of impasse is by using the single transferable vote but there is no mechanism through which the House of Commons can do this and any attempt to introduce such a system would founder on the objections of those who thought it would work against them.  The House of Commons will no doubt make a lot of noise but if it tries to exercise authority it will share the fate of the oozlum bird which flew faster and faster in ever decreasing circles until it disappeared up its own backside and thus became extinct.  Nor will a General Election improve the position.  A re-elected House is likely to suffer from the same arithmetic as the current one.  No.  I do not think we should look to the House of Commons for authoritative guidance.

So that leaves… er… the public.  Forget the nonsense about a second referendum dishonouring the first.  We all understand the issues much better than we did two years ago.  Now the public should be asked to make their choice between the three possible ways forward by way of a second referendum using a transferable vote.  That may not be the traditional way of doing things but it will produce an answer and an answer is what we need at the moment.

If Mrs May were to swing her weight behind the calls for a referendum it would be hard to resist.  “What, give you peasants a vote?  Certainly not.  Leave it to us.  We have handled things so successfully up to now”?  No, I don’t think even Boris could swing that.

Mrs May should set up the referendum and then go.  We need a far more consensual style of leadership for the next stage.


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