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Home / Simon Wren-Lewis / If the Tories lose an election before we leave, Brexit is unlikely to happen.

If the Tories lose an election before we leave, Brexit is unlikely to happen.

Summary:
There is more talk of a general election, although of course that does not mean it will happen. In that context I frequently hear people say that a general election would do nothing to get the country out of the huge Brexit hole it has dug itself. I strongly disagree. If there is an election before we leave the EU and if Labour formed the next government, I think it would make a huge difference. Unless Labour win so many seats that it has a massive majority, I think the chances are that Brexit would just not happen at all. Let us suppose that Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer manage to negotiate some form of soft Brexit with the EU. The crucial question to then ask is what the attitude of the Conservative opposition would be. As a result of losing the election (if not before) they will have a

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There is more talk of a general election, although of course that does not mean it will happen. In that context I frequently hear people say that a general election would do nothing to get the country out of the huge Brexit hole it has dug itself. I strongly disagree. If there is an election before we leave the EU and if Labour formed the next government, I think it would make a huge difference. Unless Labour win so many seats that it has a massive majority, I think the chances are that Brexit would just not happen at all.

Let us suppose that Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer manage to negotiate some form of soft Brexit with the EU. The crucial question to then ask is what the attitude of the Conservative opposition would be. As a result of losing the election (if not before) they will have a new leader, and given the attitude of most Conservative members that leader is likely to be a Brexiter. As the Brexiters in the current party find it hard to accept the hard Brexit proposed by Theresa May, they will almost certainly oppose any soft Brexit negotiated by Labour. Brexiters are happiest when complaining, and so the line they will probably take about any Corbyn Brexit deal is that it represents a betrayal of the ‘will of the people’.

Another reason that they will oppose Labour’s soft Brexit is that they do not want Labour to be able to do something the Conservatives were unable to do. It would be the ultimate humiliation that a party that is increasingly defined as being the Brexit party could not negotiate Brexit, yet a Labour government could.

The Conservative party is increasingly looking like the Republican party in the US, with an activist and very right wing base fired up by Murdoch owned and other partisan media. The health care programme that Obama successfully introduced was very similar to something the Republican senator and presidential candidate Mitt Romney had passed in Massachusettsin 2006. Despite this the Republicans in opposition unequivocally rejected Obama’s similar reforms and fought them with all their might.

Some more moderate Conservative MPs might be tempted to support Labour because they themselves would be quite happy with a soft Brexit. They could quite plausibly argue that their aim should be to get Brexit over the line and a future Conservative government could distance the UK further from the EU. But something we have learnt over the last few years is that Tory Brexit policy has been strongly influenced by the Brexiters, and the rest of the party is extremely reluctant to break the party line. Furthermore many Tory Remainers may be happy to see Brexit fail. As a result, Corbyn cannot count on rebel Tories coming to his aid.

The final reason the Conservatives, and their supporters in the press, will not want to assist Labour in delivering Brexit is that they will scent the chance of embarrassing the new government. There are plenty of Labour MPs, backed up by many more Labour party members, who do not want to see Brexit at all, and they might vote against any agreement. In that situation the Liberal Democrats and SNP might also vote against. Shortly after an election where the Conservatives are still in shock they are extremely unlikely to help out a Labour government in difficulties.

With the Tories opposing any form of soft Brexit, Corbyn’s actions will be guided with what might happen if his Brexit plans were ever put to a referendum. Labour have now said they would hold a referendum on any deal they negotiated, and they would not be allowed to backtrack on this because a combination of Tories (yes, I know, but see above), smaller parties and Labour rebels would insist it be held. A People’s Vote under a Labour government will be a very different affair from anything held under the Tories. Tory politicians, and more importantly the Brexit press, would oppose it with all the vigour we have seen over the last few years. As so many Brexit supporters derive their devotion to the cause from the press they read, they are likely to follow that press in declaring Labour’s Brexit deal to be a betrayal. Of course Remainers would also oppose it. Labour would find both Remainers and many Brexiters campaigning against them. They would not have a chance, and Brexit would fail.

A Labour government trying to get a victory in a Brexit referendum looks like a lose lose option. They would fail to get a majority for their Brexit deal and be humiliated by the result. Once the Conservatives make their opposition clear, Labour should see this coming. But how do they avoid that outcome, as the clock will still be ticking on an extended Article 50? The issue cannot be kicked in to the long grass, and Labour will have a manifesto commitment to try and get a Brexit deal. One possibility is that after talking to other party leaders, Corbyn will announce that a Brexit deal is impossible because of Conservative and minor party intransigence and he will put to parliament that Article 50 should be revoked. That will be passed by a narrow majority (the Tories and perhaps a few Labour MPs would oppose). He will endure a day of negative headlines in the Brexit press, but just another day in a continuum of negative headlines is hardly a great cost. Most of the country will breath a large sigh of relief.

If this is the case, why would Labour promise to enact Brexit in their manifesto, if they could see it subsequently failing? For a start Labour could not be sure what the Conservative opposition would do, and it might hope to get a majority large enough to overcome its own rebel MPs. But the main reason is the same as it was in 2017. The party will want to avoid the election being about the merits or otherwise of Brexit. The Tories in an election will want to pin the blame for their failure to achieve Brexit on Labour, and if Labour switched to being a Remain party just before the election that tactic will probably be successful. Having come this far as a Brexit party, Labour will be on much firmer ground in an election if it continues to say it wants Brexit and has a better chance of succeeding than the Tories who have failed for three years.

Would it be ironic that a Labour government would fail to enact a form of Brexit because of Tory opposition? If you think about it, the Conservative government has failed to enact a form of Brexit laregely because of Tory opposition. The reason we are in this Brexit hole is that Brexiters who won a mandate for a soft Brexit then decided that only the hardest of Brexits would do. It would be poetic justice and good for the country if Brexit failed as a result.


Simon Wren-lewis
Professor of Economic Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University, and a fellow of Merton College. This blog is written for both economists and non-economists.

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