Will the Biggest Crisis in Contemporary British Politics Mean a Second Brexit Referendum? By Stephen Barber
British politics is in crisis as the Brexit deadline looms. And Britain now faces one of three possible paths when it comes to its future relationship with the EU: Leave with a deal; Leave without a deal; Stay in. Unfortunately there is no majority in Parliament for any of these and if the government’s current plans are rejected by MPs, asking the people to decide again could become the only logical choice. The last few days have been politically tumultuous with Theresa May’s administration on the brink of collapse. The volatility, I think, makes a second referendum now much more likely.
It is difficult to identify a political crisis in contemporary British politics of quite this magnitude.
September 1992 is maybe the most recent comparison. This is when the UK came crashing out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism and the country was left without an economic policy. This was also a time when the outcome was so uncertain, when government lost control of the agenda, when politicians were required to stake their personal reputations on huge decisions and when each minute seemed to bring new, unexpected twists and turns. High stakes politics it was, but the ERM crisis centred on the collapse of policy. During those fevered days 26 years ago, Ministers were not resigning from Office in protest. There was not (until three years later) a palpable challenge to the Prime Minister’s leadership. And the issue in hand was not capable of tearing through and across governing party and opposition alike.
Today that is precisely what is happening over Brexit.
Two and a half years on from the referendum which narrowly decided Britain should leave the EU and barely five months until the supposed day of exit, London and Brussels have finally agreed the terms of withdrawal. The governing Conservative party has been deeply divided since the referendum. But the leader, Prime Minister Theresa May has at least succeeded in uniting both wings because if there is something that hardline Leavers and committed Remainers can agree on, it is that they do not like this deal. For Leavers, the deal ties Britain in to the EU’s rules and institutions that they thought were being abandoned. For Remainers, the deal is palpably less good than staying in and means giving up a place at the table and a voice in decision-making. Leavers want a clean break, to completely sever links with rules, regulations and institutions. Remainers want to retain the protections and benefits of membership and representation in the Parliament, Commission and Council of Ministers.
Theresa May is fighting for her political life, seven members of her government including two Cabinet ministers have resigned in the last few days and she is almost certain to face a challenge to her leadership. Meanwhile the UK is on course to leave the EU at the end of March 2019. If it leaves without a withdrawal agreement, the resulting chaos will touch every part of the economy. And yet, if May’s deal goes before the House of Commons, MPs will surely reject it. Not only is there resistance from within her own party, but also all opposition parties including the main opposition Labour and the DUP (which is propping up her minority government) have indicated they would vote against.
There was a lot of talk about regaining sovereignty in the referendum and if there is one principle of the British Constitution it is that Parliament is sovereign. But since the referendum it has been reluctant to use that sovereignty, refusing to vote against or stand in the way of what it sees as the ‘will of the people’. Rejecting the government’s deal would surely represent a rediscovered confidence in parliamentary authority. One would hope, it would also mean that Parliament would stop Britain from crashing out of the EU without a deal.
A second referendum, or ‘people’s Vote’ has been on the periphery since 2016. It has now moved (near) to centre stage. It might be the only acceptable way of solving the political crisis through which Britain is currently living. In this high stakes environment, it might even suit the hardline Leavers and candidates vying to replace the PM. They don’t want to tear their party apart, but unprepared to accept a compromise that keeps Britain tied to the EU, a stark choice of’ jump off the cliff’, ‘take the deal’ or the ‘status quo’, placed before voters could be more in-keeping with the zeitgeist.
Stephen Barber (@StephenBarberUK) is Director of the MBA program at the University of Bedfordshire