United Kingdom

Brexit imbroglio

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Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow announcing on April 1 the outcome of the second round of indicative votes on the alternative options for Brexit. Photo: Parliamentary Recording Unit/AFP

During the anti-Brexit march in London on March 23. Organised by the People’s Vote campaign, the march called for a final vote on any proposed Brexit deal. Photo: Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP

Despite holding many debates and votes on Brexit, the U.K. Parliament seems unable to find a way out of the deadlock and avoid a disastrous no-deal crash out of the European Union.

On March 27 and again on April 1, Members of Parliament voted on a series of alternative measures on Brexit in an attempt to find a way out of the deadlock and avoid a disastrous no-deal crash out of the European Union (E.U.). Jacob Rees-Mogg, the hard Brexiteer whose propensity to bandy about Latin phrases in cut-glass English, among other things, has given him something of a cult following in some Conservative circles, lashed out at the proponents of the indicative vote process—a system designed to help Parliament identify a road forward on an issue, in this case Brexit, that a majority of MPs could rally around—in the best way he knew how. He went for the jugular, accusing one of them, Nick Boles, a fellow Conservative MP who has been pushing for a softer version of Brexit, of making a “characteristically Wykehamist point” that was “highly intelligent but fundamentally wrong”—a reference to Winchester College, the private boarding school that Boles had attended. However, Oliver Letwin, a proponent of the indicative vote process and a former student of Eton College, as Rees-Mogg was, was not spared his contempt either. “I must confess that I have sometimes thought [Letwin] was more a Wykehamist than of my own school, but we will leave that to one side,” he said during one of the lengthy debates on March 27, to loud guffaws from some of the MPs gathered.

Even as Brexit’s proponents have sought to position leaving the E.U. as a fight back against the “establishment” and the “multicultural elite”, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the Brexit project was to a large extent always at the mercy of a small, privileged Conservative cabal.

Pleas for clarity

Pleas from business leaders, trade unions and the public for clarity have gone unheeded. In a move that was seen as unprecedented, in mid March, the Confederation of British Industry and the Trade Union Council sent a joint letter to Prime Minister Theresa May saying that there was a need to take no deal off the table and identify a Plan B and warning of a “national emergency” as businesses up and down the country were already struggling under the weight of uncertainty. Over six million people signed an online petition on the Parliament website calling on the government to revoke Article 50 (the provision in the E.U. treaty under which a member state can leave), only for it to be rejected outright by the government on March 26. “Revoking Article 50, and thereby remaining in the European Union, would undermine both our democracy and the trust that millions of voters have placed in government,” the government insisted.

Repeated calls from opposition parties for talks to identify a road forward have been ignored. While the Prime Minister has insisted she is willing to compromise, she has also insisted that she will not even begin to discuss anything that goes against the 2017 general election manifesto commitments to leave the E.U. single market and customs union, which pretty much makes her deal the only one she is willing to accept. “My party refuses to compromise,” declared Boles, whose attempt to persuade MPs to back a version of Brexit that would be similar to Norway’s relationship with the E.U. in the second round of indicative votes on April 1 failed to get enough supporters. He said he would leave the Conservative Party as a result.

However, the cavalier rejection that those expressing concerns about Brexit have been met with is in sharp contrast to the attentiveness with which complaints by Rees-Mogg and his colleagues, some of whom form part of the European Research Group of hard-line MPs, have been received. After the initial defeat of the withdrawal agreement in the House of Commons, the Prime Minister has made every effort to try and assuage the concerns of the hard Brexiteers in her party and those of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland, both of whose concerns have centred on the Irish backstop. This refers to the arrangements in the withdrawal deal that would keep Northern Ireland (and consequentially the rest of the United Kingdom) in a customs union with the E.U. to avoid a hard border developing on the island of Ireland if talks on future relations were to break down. While the Brexiteers fear that this could lock Britain in indefinitely as there is no unilateral exit option, turning Britain into a “vassal” state in the words of Boris Johnson, the DUP believes that if such arrangements were entered into the unity of the U.K. could be eroded in the long term. What have followed are repeated trips to Brussels, and promises that the concerns were being listened to.

The focus on this one issue has meant that concerns about much of the rest of the deal have fallen by the wayside, disparagingly rejected by the government. These include concerns from the Labour Party about the need to align the U.K. to E.U. standards on the environment and worker and consumer protections. The government has held some meetings with unions to attempt to get them on board, with little success. Theresa May has insisted that the U.K. will not simply do what the E.U. does but wants Parliament to determine such things for itself. “That sounds awfully like a recipe for regression away from those standards and for damaging workers’ rights,” warned Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn and his colleagues have continued to push for a general election to break the impasse in Parliament, but it has mostly been the Brexiteers who have been able to shout the loudest.

Amid speculation that Theresa May’s withdrawal deal would return to Parliament for a third time, The Daily Telegraph, a right-wing daily avidly campaigning for a hard Brexit, had a large photograph of Johnson splattered across the front page on March 25, with his words in large screaming letters. “We have blinked. We have baulked. We have bottled it completely. It is time for the PM to channel the spirit of Moses in Exodus and say to Pharaoh in Brussels—LET MY PEOPLE GO!” he wrote theatrically. Ironically, this was just days before he himself decided to back the very deal he had been lambasting after the Prime Minister agreed to make way for a successor for the next stage of Brexit negotiations.

Menacing voices

Even more menacing voices have also gained ground. The process preceding and following the referendum has created an ideal platform for the far Rright and its leaders such as Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (better known as Tommy Robinson). After Theresa May’s deal was resoundingly defeated for a third time on March 29, Robinson appeared at a rally on Parliament Square attended by thousands of Brexit supporters and railed about “betrayal” on what was meant to have been Britain’s “Independence Day”. In the past few months, in the days leading up to or following major parliamentary votes, MPs have faced intimidation around Parliament and beyond. On March 23, when between several hundred thousand and a million people took to the streets asking for a second referendum, Anna Soubry, a former Conservative MP who joined the recently formed independent group of MPs who took some control of the Brexit process away from Theresa May, was warned not to return to her home. This was a chilling throwback to the referendum campaign when Labour MP Jo Cox was killed by a far Right activist. Rees-Mogg himself courted controversy (but refused to apologise) for referring to a speech by one of the leaders of the far Right Alternative for Germany party, in which she accused the E.U. of “bad faith” in every “manoeuvre from Brussels”.

Link between austerity and Brexit vote

It would, of course, be wrong to suggest that Brexit has been all about the racism, the Right, and the push of a small clique. Some 72.2 per cent of the electorate turned out to vote on the day of the Brexit referendum, higher than for any U.K. general election since 1992. Research has pointed to a link between deprivation and government-induced austerity programmes and the way people voted in the referendum. Districts exposed to various welfare cuts saw a marked increase in support for the UK Independence Party, for Leave and wider anti-establishment political preferences, wrote Thiemo Fetzer for the London School of Economics (LSE) last year. He said there was a drop of 23 per cent in spending per person at district levels in the five years to 2015, under the Conservative government, with the drop in spending varying considerably across districts. Other research, also at the LSE, has suggested a diversity within the demographics of Leave voters that has often been overlooked: research published by the LSE in 2017 noted that while there was a negative relationship between education and voting Leave, those with intermediate levels of education (the “squeezed Middle”) were more pro-Leave than the low-educated. “Brexit was the expression of a widely felt social malaise that affects ample segments of the population,” concluded the report.

The tragedy has been that far from offering an answer the government and its allies have veered in a direction far away from dealing with any of the concerns of the people. The promises around more spending on the National Health Service have not been met. While more money is indeed going into the NHS, it is a long way off from the level of support that had been pledged by the Leave camp and has been condemned by many within the institution as well short of the levels the NHS needs, given the increasing demands on it. Other problems mount too: in December, homelessness reached a record high, as the number of rough sleepers shot up. Poverty, including in-work poverty, has continued to rise, with an estimated 3.7 million children in the U.K. living in dire circumstances. Austerity cuts continue to hit local councils and are impacting their ability to deliver education, with some schools having to cut the length of the school day in an effort to save funds.

Meanwhile, questions continue to haunt the Leave campaign. On March 29, Vote Leave, the official Leave campaign, dropped its appeal against a fine slapped on it by the Electoral Commission for crossing spending limits during the Brexit referendum. Many of the critics of the Leave campaign believe those were part of it such as Johnson and Michael Gove (both in line to take over from Theresa May when she steps down in the coming months) need to provide answers.

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