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May’s Other Option on Brexit

May’s Other Option on Brexit

Tuesday, 25 December, 2018 - 10:45
A conventional view is forming about what happens next in Brexit. If, as expected, parliament rejects Theresa May’s deal in January, a second referendum becomes inescapable. But there is an alternative: A general election.

While calls for a second referendum have some logic — if parliament can’t decide, then the public should, now that there’s more clarity about what Brexit actually means — two big problems explain why May has so far ruled it out.

First, it would be seized upon by Leave campaigners as an exercise in elites bullying the masses until they give the right answer. Then there’s the matter of what is a fair question to ask. Every possible configuration, from binary choices to multiple choices, has serious flaws. If parliament rejects May’s deal, it makes sense to give voters a choice between remaining or leaving without a deal. But what if the public chooses to gas it over the cliff?

A no-deal Brexit is a risk hardliners in the Conservative Party are ready to take to achieve their bigger objective of recovering national sovereignty. That view – captured by one Brexiter’s affirmation that “if you told me my family would have to eat grass, I’d still have voted to leave” – should not be underestimated.

But it’s not a risk that a sitting prime minister could responsibly run, especially not one who is head of the party that has traditionally stood for sound management of the economy and defended the interests of business. Many small and medium-sized enterprises, the backbone of the party, would be hit particularly hard by a no-deal exit. So too would the opposition Labor Party’s heartlands, which is why it has ruled it out as well.

And here we come to the prime minister’s only serious option beyond a referendum if her deal is rejected: An election. On the face of it, it’s an outlandish idea. Why would such a deeply risk-averse leader jeopardize her position? A vote isn’t due until 2022. Given the debacle of 2017, when May lost her majority, why would such a terrible campaigner hit the road again? Would her party even let her?

There are logistical hurdles, but they aren’t insuperable. May would need to ask the EU to extend the Article 50 timetable to allow time for the ballot; permission would probably be granted. To call an early vote, she would need the opposition’s backing – again something they are unlikely to withhold if it could bring down the government.

For May, an election would accomplish several things at once:

First, it could be used to quash once and for all the threat of a no-deal Brexit. The Conservative manifesto would promise businesses and consumers that the party of stable economic management would never lead them to that dark place. It would bind candidates to support May’s deal, but allow them to argue about what kind of future trading relationship should follow. Negotiations over that will only begin after exit day.

This would require the prime minister to drop her assertion that no deal is better than a bad deal. It was a necessary fiction during the negotiations with Brussels, but it was never quite true, and certainly isn’t when compared with her available deal.

Second, by ruling out no deal and threatening a general election, May would confront the hardliners in her party with a choice: Stay and fight on the party’s terms or form a new conservative-nationalist party (possibly with members of the pro-Brexit United Kingdom Independence Party).

This new party could stand for sovereignty and traditional social conservative values. It might win votes from Labor leavers and from the Conservative Party. But its offering would finally be put to the test, instead of being confined to media briefings, plots and dinner parties of the like-minded.

That will sound like heresy to loyal Conservatives. But the party has already split. An election would be an acknowledgement that the Tories cannot heal their divisions as things stand. It will be painful; the tribal pull of party is powerful. But, it may end up that there is no will to make a break. Hardline Brexiters might just decide they can live within the fold after all. There is an opportunity for some catharsis.

Third, a general election would smoke out the Labor Party’s deliberately vague position on Brexit. Jeremy Corbyn’s party has cleverly been able to oppose the government’s positions without tabling a realistic alternative plan for delivering on the Brexit referendum. That has allowed it to keep sweet with leave voters in Britain’s industrial heartlands and metropolitan remainers.

An election would give May a slight chance of putting the focus where she would want it: On Labor’s vision of a socialist economic policy versus a Conservative offering. Given she is still ahead in the opinion polls, she might have less to fear from an election than her party thinks.

There are, of course, still huge risks in holding a vote. It may fail to produce a clear majority. But if the Conservatives emerged as the largest party, she (or her successor) could still promise a second referendum offering a choice between her deal and remaining in the EU. At least then the threat of a no-deal Brexit would be off the table.

It’s also possible that an election produces a victory for Labor or a no-deal faction. The risk of those outcomes, combined with the problems of a second referendum, might make May’s deal look more and more compelling to Conservative lawmakers over the next few weeks. But if, in the new year, parliament still can’t bring itself to support it, an election would allow voters to express a preference for what flavor of Brexit and what future political order they want.

It would hopefully move the country beyond the existing stalemate. But not at any price, something that allowing an exit-with-no-deal option in a referendum would risk. For May, the head of a party that routinely destroys its leaders over Europe, the most outlandish way out might of this mess might just be her final option.


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