Institutional Contradictions Limit Brexit Options for the UK

Blog | February 25, 2019

Keep Calm and Carry On. First coined during World War II to raise morale during the German bombing raids of London, the phrase is now synonymous with the British sense of fortitude, level-headedness and steadfastness; personified by the proverbial “stiff upper lip.” Yet, Brexit, and the whole circus surrounding it, may be putting the final death knells into this stereotype. The more the Brexit process continues to dither towards the inevitable cliff edge of no-deal, the more it seems appropriate to write the entire thing off as a complete debacle.

The January 29 House of Commons vote on a succession of different amendments to Theresa May’s Brexit “Plan B” was the latest in a long line of truly baffling events, which threaten not only the country’s economic future, but also its obligations to an already fragile peace process, and more importantly, its very constitutional fabric. Effectively, Members of Parliament (MPs) agreed that they do not wish to see a no-deal come to fruition, but simultaneously further removed themselves from the future trajectory of the process after a fortnight of plotting and scheming to do the exact opposite. It may be an oft-used cliché, but these truly are bizarre times.

However, the renowned political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s work concerning political decay offers a more nuanced means to consider the string of seemingly hypocritical events that have hamstrung Brexit. In turn, such a reading demonstrates why, more than ever, Britain is stuck the with immensely limited choice of either May’s deal or no-deal at all.

Chaos at Westminster

When Theresa May finally presented her Brexit withdrawal agreement to parliament in November of last year, it seemed as if the ink on the document was barely dry before MPs from both sides of the house denounced it as a calamity of a deal. The main sticking point being the “Backstop,” which was designed as an insurance policy to prevent a hard border in Ireland. May’s backstop idea completely split her party, and garnered derision from the Democratic Unionist Party MPs on which her coalition government depends.

After surviving a vote of no confidence from her own party, and after much delay, May’s withdrawal agreement was finally put to parliament. In a landslide defeat, her deal was rejected by a record margin of 432-230—a truly resounding defeat which should have precipitated the prime minister’s down fall. Almost immediately after the historic vote, and in the hope of triggering a general election, opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn tabled a motion of no-confidence in May’s government. 24 hours later, May again survived. This time, by a narrow margin of 19 votes as her party and coalition partners came together to keep her in power—the clearest sign yet that the whole process is still shackled by party politics.

Mixed Signals

The following two weeks brought us to last week’s events, as several MPs tabled a number of amendments of varying strategies to May’s “Plan B” vote. Given May’s inability to get her deal through the commons, the tabling of amendments was largely seen as the start of parliament exercising its sovereignty and wrestling the process from May and her dysfunctional cabinet. Among the amendments to be debated were a host of constructive ideas for unlocking the deadlock at Westminster, including a possible second referendum.

However, nearly all of these amendments were voted down. In the end, all the commons could really agree on was a non-binding amendment, which stated parliament should not leave the EU without a deal. Along with the government, it also supported the Brady amendment, which proposed finding “alternative arrangements” to the Irish backstop without actually clarifying any details. Neither are very helpful at this critically late stage. Furthermore, not only is the government’s decision to support the Brady amendment completely hypocritical, as it undermines its own previous position that the backstop is the only solution, but parliament’s backing of these two amendments are inherently inconsistent. Given the EU’s reluctance to budge on the backstop issue, parliament’s refusal to ratify any deal which includes a backstop will inevitably result in a no-deal. After all this political drama, the UK is essentially at square one: rudderless and unsure of what to do next.

Institutional Contradictions

Fukuyama’s 2014 book, Political Order and Decay, provides some perspective on this seemingly absurd set of circumstances. One of the main takeaways of the book is the idea that no matter how well developed and institutionalized forms of government are, they inevitably begin to decay when its institutions are unable to adapt to significant changes in the political environment. We can observe this very process underway in the UK, as its institutionalized representative democracy struggles to implement the direct democratic instruction it received from its public in the form of Brexit. The public may have voted to exit the EU, but the custodians of its implementation are mostly against the idea.

Thus, an inherent struggle is playing out whereby members of parliament are caught between their own personal views on Brexit and their obligations to their constituents who instructed them to carry it out. In multiple cases across the country, Brexit MPs are representing “remain” constituents or Remain MPs are representing “leave” constituents.

What Next?

Currently, the only respite for those who will be affected by Brexit is that pressure is building towards a resolution.

May’s ability to survive a no-confidence from both her party and the opposition rules out the possibility of either a Tory leadership contest or a general election. The rejection of multiple amendments to May’s deal also seemingly rules out the prospect of a second referendum. Moreover, the even less dramatic and sensible idea of extending Article 50 is not a foregone conclusion with European Parliament elections taking place this May.

Were the UK to technically remain a member of the EU after the March 29 deadline, it would be obligated to participate in the elections. This is something Brussels would prefer to avoid, since it has already allocated the UK’s parliamentary seats to other member states.

The only option left seems to be between May’s deal or simply a no-deal. All other options look unlikely. A truly contradictory state of affairs, given Parliament’s decision to uniformly reject May’s deal in contrast with the Prime Minister’s rallying cry in 2017 that “no deal is better than a bad deal.”