Drowning, not waving: the UK and Brexit edit

July 19, 2018

Almost exactly two years ago as I write this, by a small majority the UK voted in a referendum to leave the European Union. Yet nobody, perhaps least of all Prime Minister May, is any clearer on exactly what Brexit means for Britain. The necessary legislation by which EU laws and regulations will be incorporated into UK law has only just been passed, surviving again after the upper chamber, the unelected House of Lords, had voted several important amendments (some of a wrecking nature which would have made Brexit impossible) which were rejected by the House of Commons only after a nail-biting debate in which the government offered several last-minute concessions to opponents to the legislation from within its own party! Most recently, the cabinet finally agreed proposals to be set out in a White Paper and representing Britain’s desired outcome from negotiations with the EU. And despite claiming the collective responsibility (once defined as it does not matter what we say so long as we all say the same thing) of the cabinet had been restored, within forty-eight hours Mrs May had lost not only the senior minister responsible for the negotiations, David Davis, but also one of his juniors. Twenty-four hours later, she lost her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, a man who had led the Leave campaign, but who is someone perhaps best known for putting himself first and who has strong leadership ambitions within the Conservative party. Though not a surprising departure, it further weakens Prime Minister May’s position, possibly leading to a leadership challenge later this year from the Brexit group within the parliamentary party.[1] Yet, in legal terms, nothing has yet been agreed with the EU on either the terms of departure, nor on a necessary transition period, let alone on the terms of the future relationship between Britain and the EU. Yet in under three hundred days Britain will have left! How could this chaotic situation come about?

First, of course, nobody expected Britain to vote leave. The Leave campaign certainly did not expect to win, and as a result, had made no plans as to how the leaving process would be conducted or what terms they wanted from the EU. On the Remain side, David Cameron, the then Prime Minister, confidently expected a Yes vote and prohibited the civil service from undertaking any work in preparation for a Leave victory. He compounded matters by resigning when the referendum result was announced, leaving both the government and the Conservative party leaderless. Theresa May emerged victorious after a leadership campaign and set about choosing a cabinet which would have a balance between Remain and Leave supporters, with the latter being given the prominent (and more difficult) jobs associated with process of negotiating Brexit. And long after Britain had given formal notice in March 2017 that it wished to leave the EU, Mrs May was still intoning that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ without giving any details as to what this phrase might mean. So in part the chaos derives from an absence of leadership from the outset, which as we will see has been compounded subsequently as Theresa May struggles to bring Brexit about.

Second, what the referendum did was to reveal just how divided Britain currently was and how it continues to be divided. But in fact, from one perspective, Brexit is an English rather than a British problem, since Scotland and Northern Ireland voted largely to remain, whilst Wales voted narrowly to leave. Scotland would very much wish to remain within the EU, and Britain’s eventual departure might hasten Scotland’s departure from the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland provides a major sticking point in any negotiations, since it provides the only land border between the EU and the UK and the imposition of any customs barriers between the two is seen as a possible upset to the peace process in Northern Ireland, threatening a return to the violence of the late 20th century.

The vote also divided people and even families. In part it was seen as a split between young and old, between North and South, between city dwellers and those in small towns and rural parts of the country; between declining areas and the prosperous London and the South East. Farmers voted to leave, disliking the bureaucracy imposed by the CAP though not the income it provides, whilst many depend on cheap east European labour to pick crops; fishermen voted to leave, believing that fishing quotas would disappear!  University towns largely voted to remain, others to Leave. European immigration – and immigration generally – played a part, with some towns feeling overwhelmed by the numbers of East European immigrants who had come to these areas. Some people believed the claims made by the Leave campaign that leaving would liberate large sums for the health service: others rejected the Remain view that the economic consequences of departing the EU would be disastrous. Furthermore, neither side chose to highlight either the benefits Britain had achieved from 40 years membership of the EU, perhaps a reflection of the ambiguous relationship Britain has had with the EU over the years)[2] or how difficult the process of leaving might possibly be.

That the process of leaving the EU was more complicated than certainly the Leave side believed should have rapidly become clear to the May government once it was in place, yet within six months and without knowing precisely what it wanted, in March 2017 the British government gave notice to quit the EU. The lack of preparedness is another reason why said government finds itself in chaos today. Only a relatively small section of the British civil service had dealt with the EU over the years – now leaving would have implications for all departments, all policies, and all ministers. But that group contained several civil servants who were pro-remain, some of whom then chose to leave the service, further reducing the government’s capacity to deal with the most important change facing Britain since 1945. Furthermore, the civil service lacked skills in specific areas such as trade negotiations, since for forty years those had been conducted on Britain’s behalf by the European Commission!

Few, if any, of the ministers in the May government had any history of working within the European Union, or with the Commission. Indeed, it could be argued that few people in Britain have any real understanding of how the EU and its various institutions. Few could tell you the name of their MEP, or who was the President of the European Council, or who the President of the European Commission might be. [3]Britain’s participation in EU matters has long been half-hearted at best, seeking to support the things which were seen in Britain’s interest, showing little interest in other things, and generally opposing any closer European integration. Whilst such a stance is common to most if not all EU member states, Britain, perhaps more than most, has sort special exemptions or opt outs from European policies, at least from the time of the Thatcher secured rebate on Britain’s financial contributions. For example, Britain is not a member of the Schenken agreement which removed borders between countries across most of the EU. Yet Britain was also one of the countries promoting increased membership of the EU after the fall of the Berlin wall and welcomed immigration from the new member countries earlier than many other countries. But increased membership of the EU meant further integration within it was unlikely to occur – from the then Blair’s government’s point of view, something again it saw as in Britain’s interest – widening the EU was certainly preferable to deepening it. Yet the same government severely underestimated the numbers of east Europeans who would seek to come to Britain to work and in many cases to live, a mistake which led to immigration being a central theme in the referendum campaign in 2016 and in its result. Perhaps Britain’s approach is rightly summed up in the phrase ‘pick and choose,’ a phrase which we will see haunts the Brexit process.

The lack of understanding of how the EU and its institutions work amongst most of the British political elite has added to the chaotic nature of the Brexit process. Putting what is a complex system in as simple a set of terms as possible, the EU is largely a rule-based system. At its centre is the Council of Ministers made up of the political leaders/prime ministers/presidents of the member states on matters of major policy development, or by the relevant ministers of member countries when dealing with particular policy areas – for example interior ministers for matters such as policing and crime, or foreign ministers when considering foreign affairs, and defence ministers on defence matters. The Council decides policy in broad terms, leaving it to the European Commission to work on details and the day to day operation of the policies. But in another sense it is the Commission which proposes new policy initiatives and regulations, which are then agreed by the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament. Policy is largely implemented through a mix of regulation and finance. Regulations set the standards and rules for implementation, finance via EU grants oils the process of implementation. Failure to implement EU policy or a breach of regulations results in member states being fined, final judgement on these matters being decided by the European Court of Justice, which covers everything from human rights to breaches of fishing quotas to environmental standards! Decisions of the European Court are binding on all member states.

This mode of working is almost alien to the way in which most British policy making and implementation works. Despite having devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as some devolution of powers to London and some other city regions, British government and politics remain one of the most centralised in Europe, and London centric to boot. Central government sets out broad policy guidelines through legislation, (some of which may apply to the whole UK or to parts of it), but it does not set standards or generally regulate the implementation of policy.  Policy implementation is left to the devolved administrations, local government, and increasingly to other agencies and/or the private sector. For example, whilst government might well have a policy concerning water usage or energy, oversight of the policy is left to a regulator (OFWAT in the case of water and OFGEM in the case of gas and electricity). Such agencies may or may not be effective in seeing the efficient implementation of policy or successfully protect consumers from monopolistic or oligopolistic service providers. Furthermore, cuts in the resources of local governments since the 2008 financial crisis have meant local councils face increasing difficulty in maintaining standards for even those services for which they have a mandatory responsibility, for example in the field of social care, with at least one (the county council of Northamptonshire) going bankrupt, with others possibly to follow.

The result of this fragmented structure is that identifying and applying responsibility for policy or service failures is frequently difficult to tie down, even for the specialist parliamentary committees who oversee the work of the various government departments, let alone the man in the street. Even when failures have been identified, rectification and improvement, both in policy and service terms takes time[4]. And this mode of operation means that central government and its ministers are much more interested in broad generalisations on policy matters and have both less of a concern with and knowledge of the details of policy operation than is true of their EU counterparts in the Commission. These differences in terms of approach, style and attention to detail in part helps to understand why negotiations between Britain and the EU have so far appear to have made little progress and again adds to the apparent sense of chaos.

But by far the greatest sense of chaos derives from the fact that the divisions revealed in the Brexit referendum not only continue to divide the UK, but equally importantly divide the major political parties. Whilst the Liberal Democrats have always been pro-Europe, joined more recently by the Scottish National Party, the Conservative and Labour parties have always been split. Within the former, there has always been a hard core of members strongly opposed to membership of the EU, some of whom were those to whom the then Prime Minister, John Major, referred as ‘those bastards’ in the 1990s. Whilst the Labour party was initially opposed to Britain’s entry into the then Common Market, over the years it has generally become more favourably inclined towards t he EU, with the party supporting the Remain side during the referendum, if rather more weakly than some people within it wished. There is only a very small number of Labour MPS who did and would continue to join with the Leave side. However, there are a significant number of Labour MPs, most of whom would wish the UK to continue to have a close relationship with the EU, (if not within the Single Market and the Customs Union), but whose constituents largely voted to leave the EU in the referendum. With small electoral majorities, many of these MPS fear loss of their seats if Labour too openly declares for a close relationship with Europe. This situation is not helped by the less than enthusiastic support for the EU offered by the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. The result is that Labour’s position on Brexit and what outcome it would like to see is still somewhat fuzzy, even though the party accepts the referendum result.

Having been elected leader following David Cameron’s resignation after the referendum, Theresa May could not have imagined that within two years she would be a prisoner between two warring camps within the Conservative party. What seemed to be a good idea at the outset, she appointed three leading Brexiteers to posts which would be involved in delivering the Brexit deal – leader of the Leave campaign, Boris Johnson, went to the Foreign Office, Liam Fox to the Department of International Trade, where he has the task of delivering new trade deals, only to discover that he cannot deliver any until Britain finally leaves the EU, whilst the task of negotiating with the EU was given to David Davis, in charge of a new department, the Department for Exiting the EU (DEEU). To balance the Brexiteers out, pro-remain people were appointed to other ministries, most notably Phillip Hammond to the finance ministry and Amber Rudd to the Home Office. Later another Brexiteer returned to the cabinet: Michael Gove was appointed to the Department for the Environment, which also deals with agricultural and fishing matters. By the time he arrived it was clear that agriculture was going to be one of the difficult areas: famers need two things. First, they want a continuation of subsidies similar to those offered under the CAP.[5] Second, there is a need for a regular season supply of migrant labour to pick crops, especially soft fruit.

Even by the time the government formally gave notice in March 2017 to leave the EU, it was still unclear what sort of Brexit it was seeking – Brexit still meant Brexit. Despite business interests demanding more certainty, EU citizens and British residents in EU countries unclear as to their future status, Mrs May and her colleagues continued to insist that they would deliver a Brexit which was in the best interests of the country, whilst not ruling out the possibility of there being no deal at all. In meetings with the EU negotiators, led by Michel Barnier, it was clear that Britain wanted to have its cake and eat it, or to pick and choose those things it liked about the EU (especially tariff free entry to the single market) whilst rejecting those it particularly disliked, namely the free movement of labour and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. Even within this general framework, however, it was also clear that David Davis and his colleagues had no detailed set of objectives, nor had any been agreed by the government as a whole, nor had they been outlined to Parliament. By contrast the terms the EU were prepared to offer at the outset of negotiations were clear – no pick and mix: being within the Single Market or the Customs Union meant accepting free movement of labour and the jurisdiction of the European Court. And by contrast to the British government’s offer, the EU suggested that British citizens resident within the EU would retain their rights after Britain left: by contrast Britain cast in doubt the position and rights of EU citizens after the country left the EU.

Nevertheless, despite the lack of progress and clarity of position, Mrs May felt strong enough to call an election in June 2017, arguing the need for a ‘strong and stable’ government if it was to secure the full benefits of leaving the EU, knowing that such a result would further strengthen her own position. The electorate thought otherwise, resulting in May losing her parliamentary majority, with Labour doing perhaps unexpectedly well under its leader Corbyn. The Conservatives remained the largest party in Parliament, forming a government with the support of the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party, a pro Brexit party in a pro- Remain country![6] Its ten MPS at Westminster were enough to give May a majority, providing her own members remained loyal. And therein lies the rub.

Failing to win the 2017 election resulted in Theresa May’s position as prime minister being severely weakened. She had campaigned for remain during the referendum, but without demonstrating too much enthusiasm. As prime minister, she talks frequently about the ‘will of the people’ having been demonstrated with the referendum vote, meaning inevitably that the UK will leave the EU, come what may. The Conservative party has always had a hard core of MPS opposed to the UK’s membership of the EU and members of this group has become increasingly vocal over the last twelve months, both within the cabinet and inside Parliament. Under the banner of the European Reform Group, they consistently argue for anything but a soft Brexit. Within the cabinet, Brexit favouring members constantly disagree with those members, probably including May herself, who favour maintaining a close relationship with the EU. In particular, the then Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, was particularly outspoken about the issue, embarrassingly so for the prime minister and for a political system in which a core element is the collective responsibility of the cabinet, and for a party supposedly pro-business. To say the least, most cabinet members who have been as outspoken as Johnson has been would have either resigned or been sacked for saying the kind of things he has said. It is a sign of Mrs May’s weakness that she has not been able to dispose of his services, nor have others demanded his departure, fearing that he may bring about a leadership election in which he could emerge the victor.[7]

From an EU position, the constant lack of agreement within the British government and its Conservative party has proved continually exasperating. The Commission, either through its President, Jean-Claude Juncker, or its chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, has highlighted the lack of progress in the negotiations and the fact that ‘time is running out’ to reach an exit agreement. Most recently, at the June 2018 summit several EU leaders made their feelings known about the lack of a clear understanding about what Britain wanted from them, whilst remaining clear and united that there could be no ‘pick and mix’ solution. Again, the EU side bemoaned the lack of progress on finding a solution to the Irish border problem[8], despite the UK government having accepted a back-up solution proposed by the Commission six months earlier, a solution which would effectively leave the whole of Ireland within the European Union, but with a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. If adopted, the back-up solution would probably infuriate the Northern Irish DUP, who would then withdraw their support for the May government! No doubt the back up solution was accepted by the UK government on the grounds that an alternative solution could be found to the problem. In the very limited time which she was given to address her fellow leaders, Mrs May did little to outline what it was Britain wanted, only really saying she wanted to see the ‘negotiations speeded up.’ It is reported that the remaining 27 leaders subsequently agreed a joint communique in under five minutes, perhaps an indication of how far from an EU perspective Brexit has slipped down its agenda!

Even with the cabinet’s agreement to what has come to be called Mrs May’s ‘third way’ for dealing with the issues posed by Brexit, she will still have a long way to go. Having lost two senior pro-Brexit ministers, her path may still be strewn with party related obstacles, let alone those offered when the UK government starts negotiating with the EU. Her proposals seek a softer Brexit than many of her party seek and still have elements of a ‘pick and choose’ agenda. She seeks a close relationship with the EU over goods and agricultural products, thus avoiding a large part of the Irish problem, but seeks a special deal on services and is prepared to offer special conditions for EU residents seeking to work in the UK. But she still wishes to take back control of the UK’s borders, thus restricting freedom of movement, wants to be able to negotiate free trade deals with other countries, and wishes to minimise the impact of the European Court of Justice on the UK. So far she has managed to push these proposals past her cabinet; have them accepted by her party, albeit in a rather lukewarm fashion. There have been shouts of ‘Betrayal’ by the most hard-line Brexiteers, whilst others in the party suggest that at long last the government is facing up to reality. Labour has indicated that it would oppose the proposals if they were to be the end result of negotiations with the EU. The latter awaits the full details due to be published in a White Paper – but the end game is still some way off. So far Mrs May has been able to hold her party together – there currently seems to be no desire for a leadership challenge from those dissatisfied with her proposals, and  there is no readily apparent leader in waiting. A challenge may come later in the year, especially if the government is seen as making any further concessions to the EU. Meanwhile preparations for a No Deal outcome are under consideration.

Thus, the British government is not quite drowning and is certainly not waving. But its boat is certainly unstable. The country continues to be divided, though probably most of the electorate simply wish the government would get on with Brexit, whatever the outcome. Domestic issues continue to raise their heads – health; social care; education; defence are all matters on which the government could be expected to act. However, the problems associated with leaving the EU are so all encompassing and so wide ranging that the government has little energy left for tackling these questions. Brexit continues to define and colour British politics even as the date set for departure draws ever closer – will the UK end up by drowning or waving?  Only time will tell.


[1] Subsequently at least two junior ministers also resigned, plus a couple of MPS gave up their position as vice chairs of the party.

[2] Travelling around Europe one is struck that whenever a project has been supported and financed by the EU, such support is prominently advertised. Similar adverts are often sadly missing in the case of UK projects receiving EU support.

[3] It is has also to be said that most people in Britain would have difficulty naming major office holders in the British cabinet, though they might be able to name their local Member of Parliament!

[4] See the difficulties presented by the Windrush scandal under which the UK government not only detained its own citizens as illegal immigrants, but in a number of cases actually deported them!

[5] Fishing is likely to pose him some other problems. Fishermen voted Brexit because they believe they would avoid fishing quotas, but it remains an issue for discussion and negotiation with the EU.

[6] Northern Irish politics remain complicated, especially after the death of the Sinn Fein leader in the province, Martin McInness. Inability to form a power sharing government since the last Assembly elections there in has meant there has been no elected government running the country, which is now effectively run from Whitehall in London and the Department for Northern Ireland!

[7] Much of Boris Johnson’s behaviour is seen by commentators as self-serving, designed to enhance his leadership aspirations, rather than being important policy stances. But failing him other Brexiteers would rise ot the leadership challenge, not least Michael Gove, who has history in these things, in that at he stood at the time of May’s election, undermining Johnsons claim, having previously strongly supported him! And failing him, there would be Jacob Rees-Mogg, chair of the European Reform Group, frequent opponent of anything which looks like leaving the UK anywhere near the EU, though he denies any leadership ambitions!

[8] Ireland is the only country in which there is a physical border between the UK and the EU. Such a border was dismantled as part of the 1999 peace agreement: its re-imposition is seen as a threat to that agreement (to which the UK and Irish governments and the EU are all partners) and to the possible return of sectarian violence in the North.