What would it take to derail Brexit?

‘Theresa May is committed to implementing Brexit, believing that any reversal of this policy would destroy the Conservative Party once and for all’

Michael Mosbacher

What would it take to derail Brexit? Well-funded campaigns such as Best for Britain — led by former United Nations Deputy General Secretary and Gordon Brown-era government minister Lord Malloch Brown, with Peter Mandelson and Tony Blair as cheerleaders, and part-funded by legendary American-Hungarian hedge fund manager and progressive Midas George Soros — still believe they can stop the UK leaving the European Union next March. There are many more who believe that actually reversing Brexit is too difficult, but want to push Britain into full membership of the European Economic Area (EEA) and Single Market. This would be the Norway option — the UK would formally not be a part of the EU but would have to adopt its rules and regulations wholesale without having an input into them. Free movement would also remain largely intact. The Norway option is seen as the worst possible outcome by many Brexiteers, described by Jacob Rees-Mogg as turning Britain into a vassal state of the EU where it would have to follow the diktats of a foreign power without having a say in creating them.

That Remainers remain optimistic about their chances looks rather odd at first: not only did the UK vote for Brexit in the 2016 referendum, with the 17.4 million votes for Leave being a higher vote than any party has ever gained in any British election, but in the 2017 general election 589 out of 650 MPs were elected from parties (the Conservatives, Labour and the DUP) whose manifestos pledged not only to leave the EU in line with the referendum result but also to end free movement, thus ruling out full membership of the EEA and Single Market, of which it is an integral pillar.

So what would need to happen to overturn the result of these two expressions of the popular will? One idea that can swiftly be rejected is that the current Conservative pro-Brexit government will lose a vote of confidence on the floor of the House of Commons and that a Labour pro-Remain government would take its place. For a government to fall under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act it has to lose an explicit vote of confidence. The government, with the support of the DUP, commands 326 votes in the Commons compared to the combined opposition tally of 313, and even the Tories’ most diehard Remainers — Ken Clarke and Anna Soubry — have made clear that, while eager to vote against Brexit legislation, they would troop through the government lobby in any confidence vote. Indeed, if it was implementing Brexit that brought about a confidence vote, the Tories could probably rely on the votes of at least three Labour rebels who would prioritise Brexit over a Corbyn-led Labour government and be willing to sacrifice their political careers to achieve this.

The first step to overturn Brexit would be that Theresa May would have to be removed as leader of the Conservative Party and thus Prime Minister. May campaigned for Remain in 2016 and still refuses to say whether or not she has now changed her mind on the subject. Nevertheless, she has committed herself to implementing Brexit and stopping free movement. The Prime Minister believes that any reversal of this policy would destroy the Conservative Party — Europe would finally split the party in two as it has been threatening to do for 30 years. What May above all wants to avoid is being the last Prime Minister elected by the Conservative Party as it has existed since Disraeli. That is why for May, as she has so often reiterated, “Brexit means Brexit”.
That May will be removed as leader of her party before Brexit is still a possibility — 48 Conservative MPs, 15 per cent of the parliamentary party, would have to write to Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee, asking for a vote of no confidence in her leadership (as opposed to a vote of no confidence by the House of Commons in the government) and she would then have to lose the vote by Tory MPs, or win so narrowly that she believed she did not have sufficient authority to continue. May has now antagonised so many in her party that it is  even probable that she would lose such a vote if it were to occur. Both the Brexiteers in the European Research Group of MPs and the Remainer rebels around Dominic Grieve have little confidence or trust in her. What is more, many backbenchers who are not strongly on either side of the European debate believe that her leadership has been inept and needs to be brought to an end.

For Remainer dreams to survive, the Tories would then need to choose a Europhile leader. Almost all of the most-touted and favoured candidates are strong Leavers. If Jacob Rees-Mogg, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove or Sajid Javid were elected as Conservative leader, Brexit would be in the hands of someone committed to the project, and the Remainers’ hopes would be thoroughly dashed. Javid supported Remain in the referendum, partly out of fear of the economic upheavals the Brexit process would bring and partly out of loyalty to his political mentor, former Chancellor George Osborne. Now that the process is under way, Javid is genuinely committed to Brexit. Jeremy Hunt, who is seen as a centrist candidate in a future leadership race, has also — perhaps less convincingly — stated that he has changed his mind since the referendum and would now campaign for Brexit.

The two most likely candidates as a Europhile Tory leader are Ruth Davidson and Tom Tugendhat. Davidson has the profile and might be embraced by the Tory membership if the party feels it needs a stark change — a 39-year-old Scottish woman in a same-sex relationship who is expecting her first child this autumn certainly does not fit with the preconceptions many hold of a potential Conservative leader. Davidson would, however, face two obstacles. She would have to break her pledge to lead the Scottish Tories into the next devolved Holyrood elections in 2021 and she would have to first become a Conservative MP. A politician should not find it too difficult to wriggle out of the first pledge — something about putting national interest first in this dangerous time, etc — and an ageing Tory MP with modernising sympathies in a safe constituency could probably be persuaded to stand down with the offer of a peerage. Tugendhat might appeal to Conservatives if they feel they need a fresh face who has not been tainted by the party’s lack of success of the last few years.
If either Davidson or Tugendhat were to make it through to the last two in ballots of Tory MPs — quite possible if there were  multiple Leaver candidates — they would then need to win the votes of Tory members against another candidate who would surely be a Brexiteer. Here the maximalist hopes of the Remainers go out of the window. It is simply inconceivable that any candidate could win such a ballot of the Tory membership, overwhelmingly made up of Leavers, without explicitly pledging to implement the referendum result. It is possible that Davidson or Tugendhat could say in a leadership race that reaching a deal with Europe about our future relationship was paramount and that leaving with no deal was not an option.

If such a Conservative Prime Minister then stated that the best deal that Britain could obtain was going for the Norway option — with perhaps a bit of a figleaf on free movement similar to that obtained by David Cameron in his renegotiation — he or she would instantly lose the support of 50 or so hardcore Brexiteer MPs. Europhile Tories would be delighted and the bulk of the middle ground of the parliamentary party would go along with it, but the firm Brexiteers would certainly split the party and do all in their power to bring down such a government.

Davidson or Tugendhat would have lost their majority from their own benches and would have to find support elsewhere in the Commons. This, ironically, is perhaps the easiest part of Remainer daydream to imagine: 75 Labour MPs — including Ben Bradshaw, Stella Creasy, Chris Leslie and Chuka Umunna — rebelled against their own front bench and defied a three-line whip in June to support continued membership of the EEA. What unites the pro-European Labour rebels is not just their Remainerdom but also their contempt for Jeremy Corbyn and his clique. It is easy to imagine that such MPs would prioritise the continued closest possible relationship with the EU over getting Corbyn into Number 10, something they dread anyway. It is not difficult to see Bradshaw or Umunna — and indeed Vince Cable with his band of 12 Liberal Democrat MPs — sitting happily in a Davidson-led cabinet. 

There may be other routes whereby Brexit might be stopped in its track — but there are not many. My scenario or some variant of it is possible to imagine. All these pieces could potentially fall into place — but it is much more likely that they won’t. It is extremely difficult to see how the Remainers can stop Brexit — or even retain EEA or Single Market membership — without first smashing the Conservative Party and then smashing the Labour Party. There is almost certainly a substantial majority in the House of Commons — and certainly a two-thirds-plus majority in the Lords — for the softest of soft Brexits. The trouble for the Remain schemers and dreamers is that this majority is split between the political parties. For Brexit to be stopped, traditional party allegiances would have to be ripped up. In the Labour Party there are many who are so out of sympathy with the Left’s take-over of their party that they might well be up for this. But on the Conservative side there are very few pro-Europeans who would jettison the party, especially when the alternative party of government is led by someone as unpalatable as Corbyn, who in addition shows every sign of being a closet Leaver. May may well face parliamentary defeats in July, but Brexit lives on.

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