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Analysis

Fragile Tory party unity on Brexit

Pragmatism and the pursuit of power

by Brian Reading in London

Fri 10 Feb 2017

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In Europe and the US, protest voters are on the march. Centrists are under attack by many former supporters, and representative democracy is in crisis. Most elected politicians are finding they have to make a choice between principles and career prospects. Choosing principles risks their career prospects, but prioritising career prospects destroys their integrity. Some populists, however, can afford to stick with their principles without undermining their career prospects.

The public has lost confidence in the establishment because the establishment has lost contact with the public. As a result, extremists may gain power. The election of President Donald Trump is a warning, and genuine grievances must be addressed.

The UK offers an experiment in democratic flexibility. Last year’s referendum to leave the European Union was won by a narrow margin, with 51.9% of votes being cast for Brexit, and 48.1% against. The ‘will of the people’ was almost equally divided. When the result is calculated by number of constituencies that voted to leave, the figure rises to 55%. Opposition to Brexit was mostly confined to cities, except in Scotland, where all constituencies voted to remain in the EU. Excluding Scotland, 95% of elected members of parliament supported remain, though 71% of constituencies voted leave.

The Brexit vote revealed starkly the issue of principles versus prospects. Many Conservative MPs campaigned to remain in the EU, while their constituents mostly voted to leave. Labour, the chief opposition party, was less riven.

Democratic flexibility was tested when the UK Supreme Court forced Theresa May, prime minister since July 2016, to consult the Westminster parliament before giving notice to leave the EU under Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon. MPs have been debating and voting on an Act of Parliament to do so. This goes through three stages, called readings, in the House of Commons before going to the upper House of Lords. In the first reading the general principle of whether Article 50 should be triggered by giving formal notice of the UK’s intention to leave the EU was determined. MPs voted by 498 in favour to 114 against. All Liberal Democrats and Scottish National Party MPs voted against, and the Labour party was split. The Conservative MPs accepted the will of the British people, against their own better judgement – those of other parties were in better tune with their constituencies.

The second reading considered amendments, which were all defeated by narrower majorities. Conservative MPs voted against, with few exceptions. Labour and Scottish National Party amendments were defeated due to the overall Conservative majority. The final reading, on 8 February, concluded with 494 MPs voting in favour, with 122 against. Only one Conservative MP, former Minister Kenneth Clarke, voted against. In another victory for May, the Liberal Democrats were ultimately divided, with two of their nine MPs voting in favour.

The promise was made that parliament would have the last say, but it is a false choice of ‘deal or no deal’. If parliament rejects the government’s deal with the EU, then the UK would still leave, but without any trade agreement with the EU. This would mean reverting to World Trade Organisation status. In all probability, negotiations between the UK and EU will get nowhere. May might withdraw from negotiations early and leave in less than two years.

Pragmatism and the pursuit of power have united the Conservatives for the first time since the UK’s entry into the EU in 1973. The Labour party, by contrast, is divided on Europe by its principles. British party politics have been turned upside down.

Those who voted remain out of fear may now change their minds. It is too early to predict whether doom-laden economic forecasts issued after the June referendum were mistaken or merely premature. If they turn out to have been the latter, support for Brexit could melt. Deal or no deal may not remain acceptable. The new unity that the Conservative party has built is fragile, and is precariously tied to the UK’s ability to weather the risks and uncertainties ahead.

Brian Reading was an Economic Adviser to Prime Minister Edward Heath and is a Member of the OMFIF Advisory Board.

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