The Brexit process – initiated by a referendum in June 2016, that saw a small majority support the exit of the UK from the European Community – has been a “bugger’s muddle”, and now stands as almost a monument as to how to mismanage a significant national issue.
The “deal” put by PM Theresa May to the UK Parliament this week, after almost two-and-a-half years of so-called “development and negotiation”, was humiliatingly rejected almost 2:1, still leaving no clear path forward. The exit is to take place in some 70 days time, on March 29.
It is fair to say that the referendum initiated by the Cameron government was ill considered to begin with, but it seems was done apparently with the expectation that an “exit” would be opposed. But it wasn’t, and the voter turnout was historically high at 72 per cent, so Cameron resigned, and May was elected.
May then called an early election, claiming to want to achieve something like a 100-seat majority, to give her a strong base for what would be very difficult negotiations with the Europeans. However, to her surprise, she ended up with a minority government, needing Parliamentary support at every turn.
It was a real struggle for May to get her colleagues to accept her deal, and was only achieved at the cost of a number of resignations of key ministers, including several responsible for delivering the Brexit. Indeed, even though she had the support within her government to put the deal before the Parliament this week, more than 100 of her backbench voted against the deal.
It is fair to say that the referendum initiated by the Cameron government was ill considered to begin with.
Immediately following the parliamentary defeat opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn moved a “no confidence” motion, which May survived, leaving massive uncertainty as to what would now happen.
Major options are to seek to delay the exit date until around year-end, in the hope of developing a “deal” that would gain sufficient, cross-party, parliamentary support; a new referendum; or a “hard Brexit”, that is just leaving without a deal; or even May calling another election.
May would be wise to “test” the Parliament on each of these although, while you can never be sure without a formal vote, it seems that a majority of the Parliament wouldn’t support a new referendum, nor a hard Brexit and, as the failure of the “no confidence” motion demonstrated, Parliament doesn’t want another early election either, mostly because they (including some in his Labor Party) don’t want Corbyn to win government.
This has, of course, been a very divisive issue right across the UK, and especially city vs many of the regions/nations, and the electorate is now genuinely frustrated that an effective, acceptable, deal wasn’t agreed in all this time. Their wishes were expressed democratically, and they had every reason to believe that the Cameron government had a plan to deliver the exit they voted for.
As expected, the Europeans played “hard ball” conceding little in the so-called negotiations with May. They were most concerned about the risk of “fragmentation” of the European Community, especially with the challenge of mass migration from the Middle East and North Africa-that a UK exit might set something of a precedent, tempting other nations to follow. The UK is also Europe’s most significant trading partner, and major funder.
It is also significant that the original referendum was based heavily on emotion and “fear” rather than hard evidence and analysis of the costs and benefits. A significant concern stemmed from the lack of an effective immigration policy in the context of the challenge of mass migration. The exaggerated argument that held a lot of sway was the unsubstantiated “threat” that the UK was about to be inundated by some 5 million refugees from the Middle East and North Africa, and that the UK would be “bound” by its membership of the EU to take them.
In many ways, the UK had the best deal with Europe – it had the advantage of free access to a large market, the second largest economy, but was not constrained by being a member of the Euro. This gave them considerable flexibility in economic policy.
Where to now? Party consultations, more no confidence motions, possibly an attempt to delay the exit, but unlikely agreement, which would probably not be solved even with another election. The worst of all possible outcomes.
John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.