How Brexit Could Poison the British Political Agenda for Years

Houses of Parliament at dusk, London, UK. Flickr/Creative Commons/Eric Hossinger

The British public will register the unpleasant picture of a government being chased by its own parliament.

On Thursday, a British court threw a spanner into the works of the British government’s Brexit tactic, saying that Parliament must be consulted before exit negotiations start. This is contrary to the government’s view that it has the power to do so without consulting Parliament. This is however only one of six major battlefields Prime Minister Theresa May faces and may not even be the most difficult one.

Brexit confronts Prime Minister Theresa May with six front lines: The Tory Party, the Parliament, and the British public, Scotland and Northern Ireland, the World Trade Organization (WTO), and the European Union. A plan to merge adversarial interests into a mutually acceptable outcome must be concocted – a narrow path through the woods, if there is one.

According to media reports, cards are being kept close to the chest. Tactics, ambitions, and objectives are not being disclosed; the adversary might take advantage. Nothing could prove less suitable to square this circle. Theresa May is not negotiating with enemies, but with friends and partners who are disposed to help if given a chance to do so. But how can they without knowing where she sees the solution? Admittedly there are items where you do not reveal red lines such as budget contributions, but for the grand bargain openness is required.

A large majority of the Tory Party respects the result of the referendum, but look for a compromise that will maintain links to the EU. Any efforts to accommodate the hardcore anti-EU wing will bring about new and stronger demands. They will hijack the agenda and depict the government as weak and indecisive. If Theresa May is not willing to put her foot down they will force her to choose between nation and party, betting she succumbs to ephemeral acclaim by choosing the party as David Cameron did.

Her domestic agenda complicates the picture. Key sentences at the party conference convey contradictory messages on free trade, new industrial strategy, and how to encourage, develop, and support sectors of the economy. The emphasis to employ local labor does not fit well into a free market philosophy. Is the party disposed to ditch Margaret Thatcher’s legacy? Occupying the center abandoned by Labour looks like a winner through the prism of the next election, but can the party stomach such a swing in philosophy? And can she juggle with two balls at the same time?

Despite a majority for remain in the Parliament, no one expects it to reverse the June 23 vote. Nevertheless MPs are adamant to protect their right to be heard, consulted, and voice their opinion. You ignore parliament at your peril. Thatcher labelled the European parliament a Mickey Mouse parliament and the birds let loose will come home to roost when in due course it votes on a possible outcome of Brexit negotiations.

As negotiations unfold the other member states will watch closely and the willingness to offer concessions depend on whether Theresa May has parliamentary support as she ultimately will need Parliament to endorse the outcome. The British public will register the unpleasant picture of a government being chased by its own parliament. If the Prime Minister tackles Brexit without a mandate from the voters and if she antagonizes parliament, what is left of her authority?

The dispute, constitutionally and politically, to negotiate – in this case leaving the EU (trigger article 50) – without a vote in parliament, plus the subsequent question of ratification by Parliament of a new treaty, intrigues and fascinates institutional experts. Notwithstanding this, what matters is politics. Can the government achieve and maintain solid Parliamentary support? Do the executive (government) and the legislative branch (Parliament) trust each other or will we see the British political system take a leaf out of the U.S. textbook and go dysfunctional? Will a vital interest for Britain be turned into party politics or personal vendettas?

Knowing that EU/Brexit cuts across party lines it is more likely than not that at the end of the day MPs will be allowed to vote according to conviction. That will almost certainly deliver a majority for the Prime Minister, but the question is whether it will be deemed large enough. In May 1940, Neville Chamberlain probably commanded a majority in the House of Common, but the prospect of a slim majority forced him to resign. Theresa May might face a somewhat similar scenario two years from now unless she seriously engages parliament. Furthermore, a slim majority in a messy situation will keep EU/Brexit on the political agenda for years, poisoning politics and opening the door for contesting whether it was the “right” decision taken by a “correct” procedure.

The British public possesses and radiates common sense to a higher degree than realized by the elite. Voters will interpret an uneasy or worse a rebellious parliament as a sign of the Prime Minister’s incompetence and gradually turn against the government. If she cannot rally other politicians around her course there must be something wrong.

The voters decided that Britain should leave the EU. Yes, but not the people. The turnout was 72.2 percent with 51.9 percent voting for leave. Translation: 37.6 percent of those eligible to vote took this decision. Furthermore they decided to leave the EU, but did not express any opinion about future relationship with the EU.

The task for the government is to shape a majority of people around a clear objective – a coalition perceived as a sincere attempt to bring Britain through what otherwise could turn into a national trauma.

In such a situation the Prime Minister cannot sit back waiting for events to unfold. She must reach out to the voters explaining how she wants to extricate the country from a potential trajectory eviscerating Britain for decades to come.