Brexit to Suck Oxygen Out of British Politics For Years

Brexit remains the boiling pot of British politics. The latest major poll by  BMG for the Independent shows a reversal of the June 2016 plebiscite result with 52 per cent of British voters now saying they do not want Brexit to happen, says Denis MacShane writing exclusively for EU Today.                      

This confirms the general trend of worry, even alarm about whether the Brexit result is definitive.  Only 37 per cent of the total electorate voted to leave. In the 1970s referendums on Scottish and Welsh devolution 40 per cent of the total electorate had to vote Yes in favour for the referendum result to be valid.                       

Unfortunately, the House of Commons in 2015 did not write that basic minimum into the referendum rule-book. Instead, the Brexit referendum was described as “advisory.”                       

In the drama of the post-referendum political chaos which saw the limited, little-known Home Secretary, Theresa May, emerge as Prime Minister, the contested narrow result with little more than one third of the British electorate voting for Brexit was converted into a massive universal mandate to amputate Britain from Europe.                      

Mrs May spoke only for the 37 per cent of the registered electorate who voted for Brexit and ignored the 48 per cent of the Brexit vote that was hostile to quitting Europe.                      

Cabinet Ministers like Boris Johnson and David Davis were given the green light to insult Michel Barnier and Jean-Claude Juncker.                       

The British approach was marked by ideological amateurism. Experienced top civil servants like Sir Ivan Rogers, resigned as the Head of UKREP and Ollie Robbins, has quit as head of the Department of Exiting the European Union.                        

Robbins has transferred to Downing Street and Sir Tim Barrow is the highly experienced FCO senior diplomat in charge of UKREP.                        

Bit by bit the adults are taking over from the ideologues. Their influence could be seen in Theresa May’s Florence speech made to a small room without a view crammed full of journalists.                     

But her language was more emollient and she offered the vista of de facto staying in the EU for four years until 2021. As I argue in my new book “Brexit, No Exit. Why (in the End) Britain Won’t Leave Europe” published by IB Tauris, we should see Brexit in the plural, not the singular.  There are many Brexits possible not the single total amputational rupture desired by Nigel Farage and UKIP fellow travellers in British political and media life, notably the off-shore owned press.                       

It is perfectly possible to be in the Single Market but not an EU member, for example. It is hard to see how to avoid leaving the Treaty by April 2019.  That means no more UKIP MEPs, UKIP staff or UKIP offices funded by the European Parliament.  This will greatly relieve the Conservative Party whose MPs and activists have seen so many of their natural voter base transfer their loyalty to UKIP and the Dulwich private school educated and City trader, Nigel Farage.                      

The BBC has provided uncritical platforms for Farage even if UKIP failed to win a single seat in the Commons and got only 1.8 per cent if the June 2017 general election.                       

But unless there is a major reversal of policy and public opinion it is safe(ish) to assume that by the start of the next European Parliament and Commission 5-year term in May 2019, Britain will no longer have MEPs, a Commissioner or Ministers attending the European Council.                      

The withdrawal of all ministers from deciding the EU’s direction of travel cannot but be other than the biggest self-inflicted reduction in British foreign policy influence in our history. As an FCO minister responsible for Asia and Latin America I found wherever I travelled that speaking with the policy decisions of 27 other EU nations behind me helped strengthen my arguments in addition to specific UK lines, especially in Washington.          

There is little chance of a general election until 2022. The Conservatives have 55 more MPs than Labour (317 Tory MP, 262 Labour MPs) seats and a buffer of 10 Ulster Unionist seats to guarantee a majority in case of a vote of confidence.           

Nevertheless, debates and decisions over Brexit will suck all oxygen out of the House of Commons. Business and key sector like banking and the car industry have so far kept quiet, hiding under the duvet, leaving general statements to the CBI or the British Chambers of Commerce which is calling for three years not two years of a so-called transition period after 2019.         

Britain’s economy is not in good shape. The lowest growth in the G8, massive government deficits, inflation reappearing, and many foreign investors refusing to commit to future investement if the UK loses Single Market and Customs Union access. Moodies has reduced Britain’s rating which will make government finances even more difficult.          

The vote on 23 June 2016 was only the beginning of what is going to a long process and one of the most turbulent periods ever in British history.

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Denis MacShane

Denis MacShane

Denis MacShane is the former UK Minister of Europe. In January 2015 he published Brexit: How Britain Will Leave Europe which predicted the result of the referendum. 

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