30 May 2019
The Days of May are back. What happens to Brexit now?
Dr Russell Foster
RUSSELL FOSTER: In 1832, Britain abandoned its stagnant politics. Is the same happening now?
In May 1832, a political and ideological struggle between Reformers and Reactionaries brought Britain the closest it has been to revolution. In the “Days of May” of 1832, Britain abandoned its stagnant, century-old politics that had barely changed since the Acts of Union in 1707, and entered a new phase in which politics became formalised. The old ways were gone, and a painful transition dragged the British into a new era. Something similar is happening now.
For the last three years it has been impossible to go an entire day in Great Britain without saying, reading, or hearing, the word “Brexit”. It’s unlikely that the next three years will be any different. Brexit seems to be a state of permanent impermanence, a limbo in which we can’t go forward, can’t go back – we just exist in a political no man’s land. But now the country has a second wind, and both sides are bringing up debates old and new, in response to two major plot changes. The Days of May are back.
After nearly three years as the Prime Minister who said she would not resign until Brexit has been delivered, Theresa May has resigned without Brexit being delivered. This was motivated by multiple reasons. In a desperate attempt to bring her Withdrawal Agreement before the House of Commons a fourth time (the first time in British history that a government has brought a failed bill to vote so many times), May offered MPs the option of voting on a second referendum – if they passed her bill. She promised that if they voted for her on a fourth vote, they could maybe vote on whether to have a second vote. This was the death knell for her credibility in the eyes of many. To make things much worse for Mrs May, polls for the European Parliament elections showed a total collapse of public support for the Conservative Party. Although results were not released until 26 May, the British vote on 23 May was enough to force Mrs May to resign on the 24th, pushed by her terrified colleagues in the remnants of the world’s oldest political party. This has opened a new phase in the Brexit process.
Choosing the next Prime Minister will be a small, elite affair. Candidates will be whittled down to two in votes by the shrinking Conservative Party membership and MPs, until a successor is chosen. Out of the many candidates, a front runner is obvious. Boris Johnson is deeply unpopular with his fellow Conservative MPs, but a panicking party may well back him as the only candidate with the charisma to fend off Nigel Farage. And as a supporter of a hard Brexit, this would work in Boris’ favour. He will be able to claw back supporters by arguing that while Farage is a single-issue politician, the Conservatives can deliver hard Brexit alongside a portfolio of other policies. This would reflect the splitting of British society back into two camps – Leave and Remain. A soft Brexit appears to be dead, and the country is now back to the binary choice offered in 2016. To try and rescue the party in the aftermath of its worst defeat since 1834, the Conservatives will likely back Boris and hard Brexit.
The Conservatives are not the only ones facing extinction. Labour performed slightly better than the Tories, but still achieved a very underwhelming result – particularly underwhelming against a government which has been incumbent for nine years, and whose leaders have spent the last three years fighting a vicious civil war. Labour’s vague and confusing position on Brexit has resulted in the party’s support plummeting as badly as the Conservatives’. The first result announced on the 26th, Sunderland, showed a massive majority for the Brexit Party – in a constituency that Labour have held unchallenged for a hundred years. In his own north London constituency of Islington, Corbyn lost to the Liberal Democrats – and on his birthday, too. Like the Conservatives, Labour are collapsing as Leavers flock to Nigel Farage and Remainers switch to the Liberal Democrats or Greens. The two main parties which, between them, have controlled British politics since the First World War, are facing extinction.
Nothing better illustrates the new face of British politics than the successes of the Brexit Party and the Lib Dems – old allegiances are dead, party policies on anything but Brexit are seemingly irrelevant, and the country is split into two completely opposed halves, each of which wants something that the other considers an abomination. The British people have known this for three years. Perhaps if Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May had acknowledged this, last week’s results might have been different.
What does this mean for Brexit? Clearly, Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement has failed. The two options left are the two extremes of Hard Brexit or No Brexit. To try and snuff out Nigel Farage a second time, the Conservatives will almost certainly place Boris Johnson in 10 Downing Street, and he will push for a No Deal exit on 31 October. Labour will continue to vacillate, with Jeremy Corbyn continuing his daily ritual of demanding a general election. And with the new European Parliament facing deadlock and the exhausting task of building coalitions, Europe will be in no mood for more nonsense from the British. A further extension of Article 50 is out of the question. A second referendum in Britain would take far too long. And while a general election might be tempting to Boris Johnson as a way of wiping out an exhausted and abandoned Labour Party, his own Conservative Party is too weak to risk it. The net result of the new “Days of May” is that No-Deal Brexit is increasingly likely. And with the traditionally dominant parties of the European Parliament having lost their majorities to similar nationalist and Green surges, neither the UK nor the EU will be particularly able to manage Brexit.
The Remain side will likely take some comfort from the fact that when Britain crashes out, 29 Brexit Party MEPs will exit the European Parliament, diminishing the influence of the Eurosceptic right. But this will still leave a European Parliament scrambling to form and keep coalitions together; coalitions which may find it much more difficult to deal with the fallout from Britain’s looming exit.
Dr Russell Foster is AEP Lecturer in Britain and European Integration in the Deptartment of European & International Studies, King's College London.