A cross-party group of MPs recently warned that Brexit was “sucking the life” out of Theresa’s May government. They are right: this week David Lidington, May’s de facto deputy PM, is tasked with finding policies that can be ditched so government and the civil service can focus on no deal planning.
Escalating fears of the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal will worry businesses who are yet to receive specification from government on the type of Brexit they should prepare for. The Cabinet Office’s nationwide email and leaflet campaign on business planning will provide scant reassurance.
The government’s social care green paper, and draft Domestic Violence Bill are likely casualties of Whitehall’s divided attention. The NHS, rising knife crime, public transport, homelessness and the environment remain national imperatives. But as warning sounds of no deal get louder, government and officialdom must turn its engines toward planning an outcome few wished for or expected. Hold tight for 2019…
But what do we know for sure will be on the agenda in the new year? The Spending Review, the process through which government decides how much it’s going to spend in the next few years, will be taking place. Departments will be looking at where they should spend money as well as where they need to make efficiencies. The people and businesses affected by these spending decisions will be seeking to influence them before they are finalised.
How did we get here?
It’s impossible to look ahead to next year without first looking back and assessing where politics has left us in 2018.
Months of acrimony and countless ministerial resignations have ensued since May published her Brexit plan in July. We have reached the end of the year with the plan as good as dead, a failed leadership coup, and staring quite possibly down the barrel of a no deal Brexit in March next year.
As constitutional and parliamentary deadlock has consumed the government, Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters have hailed the Napoleonic doctrine of not interrupting an enemy when they’re making a mistake. Those looking for clearer opposition and alternatives from the Labour leadership have not found the grand historical comparison as convincing and are left disappointed.
So, where now? We could leave the EU without a deal, there could be a second referendum, Parliament could hold advisory votes on alternative courses of action, Article 50 could be extended, or a general election could be called.
Brexit: is the end really nigh?
Yes. The UK is due to leave the EU on Friday 29th March 2019. Despite her efforts, May failed to re-open negotiations at last week’s European Council meeting and it looks virtually impossible that she will be able to allay the concerns about her proposed deal that have driven so many of her ministers to resign, her own MPs to seek her removal, and every other party to state that it will oppose the deal in Parliament.
Of course, opposition hinges on the so-called ‘backstop’, the process that would effectively keep Northern Ireland in the Single Market if a longer-term trade agreement is not reached after the transition period. It has proven too bitter a pill for many to swallow and will not be resolved before the rearranged vote in January. Even the threat of no deal has not been enough for most MPs to say they’ll support it.
Going into next year Brexiteers and Remainers in parliament might have to look again at what they’re prepared to compromise on to avoid another breakdown in process. Lest we forget, while the Conservative Party is broadly Eurosceptic, parliament is not. There may not be a majority among MPs for May’s deal, but there is no majority for a no deal either. However, there is a big risk the UK could sleepwalk into a no deal scenario because government and Parliament has failed to agree an alternative way forward.
Entering election territory
The next election is not due until 2022 under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act but one happening next year is certainly not unlikely. Labour, despite its dithering this week on the much-threatened no confidence motion in the government, is enthusiastic about an election. The sheer attrition of the Tories’ mishandling of Brexit could be enough to push Labour over the line if an election is held, even if the Conservative Party is marginally ahead in current polling. Labour would then have the platform to invoke a radical policy programme to tackle the social injustices that, many in the party argue, helped cause a leave vote in the first place.
The DUP’s position is more complex. They hate the PM’s deal; the possibility of further constitutional divergence from the rest of the UK is too much for them to bear, having cheered so blithely for a ‘leave’ vote during the referendum campaign. However, they are arch political operators and know that a Labour government led by a PM with pronounced republican sympathies, would not be in their interests either. The DUP is surrounded by unpalatable options on all sides and the extent of their opposition to the Withdrawal Agreement shouldn’t be underestimated; their tacit, continued confidence-and-supply support for Theresa May is not guaranteed.
For the Conservative Party itself, there may also come a day of reckoning in 2019. MPs from the Thatcherite and wet wings, distant though they are, stick at it together, mindful that the UK Conservative Party is the oldest surviving political party in the world and they don’t want to preside over its demise. But such is the toxicity of division over Brexit, the stress of these divisions may prove too much. MPs have already come forward to declare they’ll resign the whip if no deal becomes policy.
If Theresa May goes, then what? Who takes over? Did they vote leave or remain? Do they want a hard or a soft Brexit? You can almost already hear the squabbling.
Marc Woolfson, Director