Bobby McDonagh: Election will do little to resolve Brexit problems
The UK vote is just another staging post on a road with many more twists and turns
‘The slogan suggesting that voting Conservative will “get Brexit done” is a zinger as far as the party’s focus groups are concerned but not a humdinger as regards clarity – about what Brexit will mean or when it will happen.’ Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire
Boris Johnson has been assuring the British electorate that his Brexit deal is oven-ready. It just needs, he says, to be popped into the microwave. Apart from a slight confusion of cooking processes, it is a catchy soundbite. But the withdrawal agreement is only the appetiser. Johnson’s recipe for the main course, the future UK-EU relationship, is vague. The British people are in effect being invited to a pot-luck supper.
The most fundamental Brexit issue is not who will occupy Downing Street. It has always been and remains what sort of Brexit the British people want, if they want Brexit at all. This question was ignored during the referendum campaign. It continues to be hotly contested. It cannot be resolved by a general election. It will dominate British politics long after the election votes have been counted.
The mantra that Brexit means Brexit became necessary because no one could define what Brexit actually meant. As a slogan it was as insightful as saying that two plus two makes two plus two.
Several potential Brexit outcomes have been methodically listed and endlessly debated, including various forms of hard and soft Brexit, as well as the possible reversal of the referendum result. A general election has frequently been numbered among the options. However, as people will soon find out, an election is not a form of Brexit. It is just a staging post on a road that has many more twists and turns ahead.
The general election will provide a clear and satisfactory solution for neither the principle of Brexit nor for the substance of Brexit policy.
On the principle of Brexit, the electoral system means that, in England at least, support for anti-Brexit parties will be squeezed with regard to both votes and the translation of votes into seats. Given also Jeremy Corbyn’s ambiguous stance, it will be difficult to interpret the outcome of the election as the people of the UK’s verdict on whether Brexit should go ahead. It seems very possible that, despite the consistent anti-Brexit majority in opinion polls, a majority of parliamentary seats will go to pro-Brexit parties. The UK could well find itself heading out of the EU but with the issue of principle – namely whether the British people wish definitively to leave the EU – unanswered.
The simple fact is that Britain remains split down the middle on Brexit
As far as Brexit policy is concerned, the general election, under any realistic scenario, will leave a great deal up in the air. The slogan suggesting that voting Conservative will “get Brexit done” is a zinger as far as the party’s focus groups are concerned but not a humdinger as regards clarity – about what Brexit will mean or when it will happen. The only legally binding part of Johnson’s Brexit deal is the withdrawal agreement. The bones of the future UK-EU relationship are set out only in a non-binding political declaration. Much of the detail of that relationship remains to be fleshed out. All of its substance remains to be negotiated.
A new Conservative government would have to resolve precisely the same dilemma that has existed from the beginning, namely where to strike the balance between the reality of Britain’s interests, which require a close relationship with Europe, and the fairy tale of an island nation, detached from its neighbourhood yet flowing miraculously with milk and honey. The cake delusion which brought Brexit to fruition and Johnson to power will have to be addressed at some point. No scale of Conservative majority will change that reality. Which way a future Johnson government would jump, faced with the fundamental choice, remains to be seen.
A Corbyn victory, likewise, would not resolve the direction of Brexit policy. It would lead to an attempt to negotiate a new deal with the EU. The recent Labour decision to seek a new agreement on free movement of people underlines how unpredictable and difficult such a negotiation would be. If a new deal were put to a second referendum, the outcome is entirely uncertain.
The simple fact is that Britain remains split down the middle on Brexit, divided within and between political parties, regions, generations and nations. This is a direct consequence of the Brexit referendum, a home-grown problem that cannot be wished away or resolved by a general election.
The British electorate is being offered a menu with a choice between three Brexit dishes: to deliver, to renegotiate or to rescind. Each of these choices would involve immense difficulty. Each would still leave the UK grappling with the core question. The ingredients for each dish would be hard to agree and assemble. The microwave may ping at the end of January. But the oven had better be available – on a low setting and a long timer.
Bobby McDonagh is a former ambassador to London, Rome and the EU