So it turns out that Usherwood’s Law is simply that things can always get worse. It’s not quite my childhood dream, but (appositely) it could be worse.
Since publishing The Brexit Clusterf**k earlier on, I’ve had lots of feedback on Twitter, essentially boiling down to “you forgot some other things”. Since I’m apparently on a roll here, I thought I’d add in those things right away.
My original post was focused on the difficulties attached to the process and content of Brexit negotiations, but there’s another element which I neglected, namely outcomes. This comes into play not only at the end, but also much, much earlier.
While I suggested one cause for less-than-complete pessimism was that the Tories had rebounded after the vote, that is a highly conditional situation. Theresa May might be the firm and reassuring hand that many in the party were looking for, but she was a Remainer (however half-heartedly). She heads up a government with a small majority and enough visceral eurosceptics to make life difficult-to-impossible for her legislative agenda. That we hear repeated calls from the backbenches to get on with Art.50 is not just frustration, but also a warning to May.
Of course, she could try to improve her immediate situation by calling an early election, to capitalise on the turmoil in Labour and the seeming deflation of UKIP. Almost certainly, she would pick up seats, reinforcing her mandate and her room to keep the sceptics in their box. However, after everything that has happened this year, “almost certainly” isn’t certain enough: better to slum it now than risk it all, especially if it means an even greater chance of keeping Corbyn in office for longer.
The sceptic core will matter throughout the coming years. Firstly, they will be the big internal source of pressure to notify the EU on Art.50, with the clear sanction that they will turf out May and seek to find a more compliant replacement. Secondly, they’ll be constantly pushing for the most UK-friendly deal possible within Art.50 (the “they’re lucky to have us” gambit), which will make any of the pretty inevitable compromises needed to bridge differences very hard indeed to achieve. Here the sanction is the ‘hard Brexit’ option: refusing any deal and leaving after the two-year period is up.
This sounds possible: it preserves British integrity and will make others see that its very much their loss. However, this option has its own problems, not least of which is that WTO membership is linked to EU membership for the UK, so there would have to be renegotiation of tariff-schedules and the rest, under WTO unanimity rules (i.e. including the EU27). LostLeonardo reasonably asks why third-party agreements would have to fall: certainly, there could be agreement by all parties to grandfather the UK’s position post-Brexit, but given the size and structure of the British economy, some parties might see opportunity to improve their positions, asking for concessions to ‘help’ the UK avoid a more painful renegotiation. In short, the WTO option isn’t as simple or quick as it seems.
Finally the sceptic core might seek to secure parliamentary approval for any final deal, again seeking more concessions from a government that will struggle to gain them in an Art.50 process that gives it scant locus. It’s not too much of a push to imagine some sceptics playing the ‘give the people a voice’ card again, this time to kill an agreement and head to ‘hard Brexit’.
If the party is a millstone to the government, then the people are going to be ones who ultimately suffer.
The Leave campaign succeeded in part because it built a very broad church: the ‘take control’ slogan was open to many interpretations and agendas, especially because no fixed plan for Brexit was presented or defended. For the purpose of winning a vote that made sense, but now the cost becomes clear.
As the last two months have shown, there are many, many models of Brexit theoretically possible: and recall the May wants a British model, not a Norwegian or Swiss or anyone else’s one. However, as I noted in my original piece, May talks about limiting free movement of people and changing market access.
Almost by definition, whatever the deal might be reached (or indeed not reached), it will not be what those who voted Leave wanted. While that might be marginally offset by some Remainers feeling that (on reflection) it’s an improvement on the status quo ante, there is a clear risk that the wider forces of disaffection will see the outcome of Brexit as further betrayal by the ‘system’. That plays out in elections, especially if Labour and UKIP can reassert their “defence of the common man” position, but it also breeds further disaffection and disengagement, which can never be good in a democratic system.
To pull all of this together, someone’s nose is going to be put out of joint by Brexit, and probably quite soon. What will matter is whose nose it is and what they decide to do about it. Maybe it drives them back to a Remain stance – although you’d need a lot of people to decide that to have any chance of reversing the fundamental position – but much more likely it means that when decisions come to be made – in government, parliament, elections or elsewhere – they’ll be even more wildcards in play.
Like I say, things can always get worse.