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Brexit: From Bad to Terminal?

Summary:
The cross-party talks between Labour and the Conservatives, aimed at a “soft” exit by Britain from the European Union, have collapsed—abandoned by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. His move was precipitated by Prime Minister Theresa May’s imminent departure from office. The uberadvocate of Brexit, Boris Johnson, is now increasingly certain to become the Conservatives’ pick for prime minister, in order to block the entry of Nigel Farage, the longtime Brexit advocate, from entering British mainstream politics. The risk of a “no deal” Brexit, in which Britain crashes out of the European Union, has risen to perhaps as high as 50 percent. These worrisome developments are compounded by what is shaping up to be an electoral disaster at the European elections on May 26, with Conservative Party losses

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The cross-party talks between Labour and the Conservatives, aimed at a “soft” exit by Britain from the European Union, have collapsed—abandoned by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. His move was precipitated by Prime Minister Theresa May’s imminent departure from office. The uberadvocate of Brexit, Boris Johnson, is now increasingly certain to become the Conservatives’ pick for prime minister, in order to block the entry of Nigel Farage, the longtime Brexit advocate, from entering British mainstream politics. The risk of a “no deal” Brexit, in which Britain crashes out of the European Union, has risen to perhaps as high as 50 percent.

These worrisome developments are compounded by what is shaping up to be an electoral disaster at the European elections on May 26, with Conservative Party losses that will spell the end of May. She will be ousted from office soon, triggering another Conservative leadership race over the summer. Tory members of parliament (MPs) get to narrow the contenders down to just two, after which a postal ballot among the Conservative membership decides the winner. It is crucial to understand just how small (less than 150,000, or less than half of 1 percent of UK voters), how old (mean age 57 years), and relatively rich (83 percent in the top social class) the Conservative Party membership is to realize how skewed this selection process is from the UK median-voter’s concerns.

Farage looks increasingly likely to win the European parliamentary elections in the United Kingdom. His Brexit Party is up to 35 percent in recent polls, with the Conservatives only in fifth position at less than 10 percent. More importantly, however, the Brexit Party is also creeping up in polling for national British elections, taking most voters from the Conservatives and potentially dooming that party’s prospects against Labour in any future contest under the United Kingdom’s first-past-the-post system of single constituency plurality voting. For a political opportunist like Boris Johnson, it would seem the obvious choice to adopt the Brexit Party’s key policy—a no-deal Brexit—as the Conservatives’ goal to stem the rise of Farage. The collapse of cross-party talks and Farage’s rise in domestic politics, too, have therefore significantly increased the risk of a no-deal Brexit in recent days, and it may now be as high as 50 percent.

At the same time, Liberal Democrats are also rising in the polls, and even Labour appears grudgingly to be edging closer and closer to endorsing a second referendum as the way out of the current deadlock. Corbyn cannot continue to sit on the fence on Brexit and watch remain-leaning voters abandon Labour in favor of the Liberal Democrats. The possibility of a second referendum has thus similarly risen significantly in recent weeks. As a result, the Brexit process is now completely bifurcated into the two most extreme outcomes—no deal or (possible) Brexit cancellation. In this environment, it is easy to imagine that the EU-27 will demand that the United Kingdom commit to a second referendum, if a further extension of Article 50 is to be granted beyond the current deadline of October 31. After all, why keep the United Kingdom inside the European Union if it has a prime minister (by then) working for a “no-deal outcome”? Johnson will have far too many opportunities to sabotage the workings of the European Union for the delayed deadline to be in the EU-27’s interest.

The outcome of any second referendum would be uncertain, even if the remain option appears to have opened up a healthy lead in recent opinion polls when matched against a no-deal alternative. At the same time, another referendum would be highly divisive in the United Kingdom and, if Brexit were cancelled, probably entrench Nigel Farage as part of UK domestic politics, as well as a member of the European Parliament. This outcome would, as noted, make it highly likely that Labour would win the next UK general election, providing another reason for Jeremy Corbyn to endorse a second referendum and campaign for remaining in the European Union.

The binary outcome of the Brexit process raises serious questions about the long-term cohesion of the United Kingdom itself. In a no-deal scenario, a border would have to be reinstated in Northern Ireland, inviting the scenario of a referendum on Irish reunification being fought in the medium-term with the prospects of “getting rid of the border (again) and returning to peace” being part of the platform for Irish unity. The outcome of such a referendum could easily see Northern Ireland leave the United Kingdom. Scottish nationalists might similarly be able to capitalize on the economic shock of such an extreme Brexit and eventually win another referendum on Scottish independence.

Meanwhile, in the case of Brexit being cancelled, a forceful entry into Westminster by the Brexit Party must be expected, largely at the expense of the Tories, which could easily make Corbyn prime minister after the next election with unpredictable consequences for the UK economy. Moreover, since the Brexit Party would be a political force overwhelmingly in England, its emergence in Westminster could also become part of the Scottish Nationalist Party’s case for Scottish independence.

In summary, while difficult to imagine, the Brexit process continues to get even worse for the United Kingdom.

Jacob Funk Kirkegaard
Jacob Funk Kirkegaard, senior fellow, has been associated with the Institute since 2002. Before joining the Institute, he worked with the Danish Ministry of Defense, the United Nations in Iraq, and in the private financial sector. He is a graduate of the Danish Army's Special School of Intelligence and Linguistics with the rank of first lieutenant; the University of Aarhus in Aarhus, Denmark; the Columbia University in New York; and received his PhD from Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies.

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