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Is a Hard Brexit more or less likely after Mrs May’s departure?

I am writing this the day we hear the European Parliamentary Elections results, and a few days after Theresa May announced her departure as Conservative leader and in due course Prime Minister.

Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party has won more UK MEPs than any other party, with both Labour and the Conservatives trounced. Although together the definitively Remain parties also did very well reinforcing how split the country still is about Brexit, the Brexit Party’s success probably means the Conservatives will pick a Hard Brexiteer as their next leader, for much the same reason that David Cameron felt compelled to promise an EU referendum in his 2015 General Election manifesto.

And by Hard Brexiteer, I mean someone who is genuinely willing for the UK to leave the EU on 31st October without a withdrawal agreement (i.e. ‘No Deal’), rather than commit to Mrs May’s negotiated Withdrawal Agreement with its £39 billion divorce bill and (via the Irish Backstop) the risk of being stuck in a permanent EU customs union and Single Market alignment.

While the UK’s European Election is no proxy for the next General Election, its timing and result will undoubtedly play heavily on Conservative minds when choosing their next leader. Choosing another middle-of-the-roader like Mrs May would logically be seen as committing the Conservative Party to being run over from both directions in the next General Election, in essentially the same car crash that’s befallen her as Prime Minister, and both the Labour and Conservative parties in the European and Local Elections. Whether the resulting injury is just a matter of broken bones that can mend, or serious organ damage that’s much harder to fix, would be a risk only the most Remain-minded Conservative MPs are likely to want to take.

Moreover, as the Conservative MPs’ role is limited to picking two candidates to be put to a vote of the Conservative Party members who apparently favour a Hard Brexit, anyone other than a Hard Brexiteer being elected is therefore only likely if neither of the final two candidates picked by the Conservative MPs is a Hard Brexiteer. Selecting the final two candidates will therefore be the next battleground.

Let’s assume for now, though, that the success of the Brexit Party in the European Election swings it for the Hard Brexiteers, and we get a Hard Brexit Prime Minister well before the 31st October revised EU deadline. How could that change things in practice?

The UK Parliamentary arithmetic won’t have changed. A new Prime Minister will have the same problem that Mrs May had. That said, a Prime Minister with a Hard Brexit mandate from Conservative MPs and the Conservative Party will more credibly be able to threaten No Deal on 31st October if Mrs May’s Withdrawal Agreement isn’t adequately watered down by the EU, in particular by removing the Irish Backstop, or at least changing it in a way that could not lead to a permanent customs union and/or Single Market alignment.

Parliament could try to impose further legislation preventing a No Deal Brexit on 31st October as it did earlier in the year. We can however expect a Hard Brexit Prime Minister to fight that more aggressively than Mrs May did. She clearly did not want to leave the EU without a deal anyway, and her mantra of ‘No Deal being better than a Bad Deal’ was little more than a soundbite, albeit marginally more meaningful than ‘Brexit means Brexit’. The fact is that any deal she negotiated was never going to be a ‘Bad Deal’ for her, just as it was bound to be deemed a Bad Deal by the Labour Opposition so that they could avoid being blamed for supporting it.

Regardless of what actually happens in Parliament as we approach the deadline, just the threat of facing down Parliament in order to be able to leave with No Deal on 31st October will clearly be more credible for a newly installed Hard Brexit Prime Minister when negotiating with the EU.

Naturally, though, the EU is saying that the Withdrawal Agreement is no more negotiable now than it was before. And, with a Hard Brexit Prime Minister in the offing, the EU is also emphasising that no future trade, security or other deals (other than limited arrangements to keep airplanes flying safely, etc) will be negotiated unless and until a withdrawal agreement has been signed and ratified. So if Mrs May’s Withdrawal Agreement (including the Irish Backstop) is the only possible one, both sides could end up trading with each other on WTO rules indefinitely, and weathering the security and other consequences.

Hard Brexiteers retort that the EU is bound to back down in the end, as the EU doesn’t want the No Deal consequences any more than the UK does, and in some ways they believe it would be worse for the Continentals. For example, the UK reportedly contributes disproportionately to Europe’s security and intelligence operations, and the German car manufacturers should continue to urge their Government to compromise so as not to inhibit their UK car sales. The Hard Brexiteers may be right in this, although brinkmanship along these lines didn’t work for Mrs May, even when she switched from threats to pleas. The EU remained unexpectedly determined. What then might change?

I think the answer lies in the continuing outgoing UK membership becoming increasingly troublesome for the EU. The delay to 31st October not only forced the UK to participate in the European Parliamentary Elections, but now also forces the EU to endure Mr Farage’s many disruptive MEPs – in the now very diverse European Parliament with the two centrist party blocks no longer in control – during a period when the European Parliament needs to pass important matters like the next EU budget.

And it’s not just the EU Parliamentary processes that will be made more complicated with one of its biggest member states in the departure lounge. The UK Government still has powerful rights at the EU top table, including vetoes on critical matters. Just as Brexit has caused significant legislative paralysis in Westminster, it could therefore do the same in Brussels. With a Hard Brexiteer in Downing Street who really is comfortable with a No Deal Brexit unlike Mrs May, the EU can expect not only tougher brinkmanship, but also deliberate disruption in the European Council as well as the European Parliament as a negotiating tactic.

France’s Emmanuel Macron anticipated this, which is why he insisted on limiting the deadline extension to 31st October, so that the UK wouldn’t be around beyond that to “pollute the mandate” for the new EU commissioners taking up their roles in November. He was very close to using his veto not to extend the deadline at all last time, bearing in mind that the EU has to agree unanimously to do so, and was only reluctantly persuaded to live with UK MEPs for a short time, but nothing more than that. He’s more concerned about the integrity and future of the EU and competing back home with Marine Le Pen’s French nationalist Rassemblement National Party (National Rally), than he is about difficulties in trading with the UK and what he sees as marginal Brexit-related issues.

The Hard Brexiteers believe that Mrs May either didn’t ask for the key concessions when it became clear that her compromise Withdrawal Agreement wouldn’t be ratified by the UK Parliament at the end of last year; or wasn’t taken seriously if she did ask, because she was so obviously desperate for a deal. Either way, the Hard Brexiteers are convinced the EU will back down if they believe the newly mandated Hard Brexit Prime Minister is actually willing to go down the No Deal route, and is in fact happy to do so. President Macron wouldn’t agree with that analysis, but it seems he is also – if not happy – at least quite willing to accept the consequences for the EU of No Deal.

Which means that, even if the UK Parliament is successful in legislating against leaving without a deal on 31st October, it may be that it’s the EU that decides to make a No Deal Brexit happen. And frankly that could well be the case regardless of the politics of the next British Prime Minister if the current Withdrawal Agreement isn’t ratified by then.

So this analysis suggests that a Hard Brexit does seem more likely after Mrs May leaves Downing Street and is succeeded by a Hard Brexiteer who tries to strong-arm the EU by being, or even just threatening to be, disruptive.

However, while a Hard Brexit seems on this analysis to be the most likely scenario, the Westminster Parliament has in recent months shown itself to be more agile and forceful than most would have expected. And if the Soft Brexiteer and die-hard Remainer MPs – who collectively command a big majority in Parliament – see a No Deal Brexit steaming towards them, they could well be provoked into voting no confidence in the Government and forcing a General Election; or more likely forcing the Government through legislation into holding a second referendum. A General Election or a second referendum have always been seen as good reasons for the EU agreeing to delay the Brexit deadline if necessary.

I discount Parliament voting no confidence in the Government and forcing a General Election, partly because of the hurdles in the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011, and because it would require Conservative MPs to vote for what would surely mean many of them losing their jobs in such circumstances. Labour too must now feel anxious about how a General Election might play out given its own very poor results in the European Elections, as well as the recent Local Elections. So while voting no confidence in the Government is possible in Parliament’s currently hot tempered atmosphere which is unlikely to cool down with a Hard Brexit Prime Minister, it’s less likely than MPs opting for a second referendum to resolve the Brexit issue, giving both main parties time to try to restore their fortunes before the next fixed date for a General Election in 2022.

So we’re back to considering what would be on the second referendum ballot. Here I certainly think a Prime Minister with a Hard Brexit mandate makes a big difference. When I previously considered the ballot questions, it seemed to me that Mrs May’s Withdrawal Agreement would have to be her Government’s preferred option, and that the main debate would be about whether also to have No Deal on the ballot paper. With Mrs May gone, and if forced into a second referendum because it has been unable to agree a different deal with the EU, the newly-led Government will surely insist on No Deal being on the ballot, and indeed campaign alongside Mr Farage for it. A very different scenario to a referendum held under the May Government.

With a Government refusing to negotiate any kind of Soft Brexit option, we may well therefore be left with just the binary choice of Hard Brexit or Remain on the ballot. That is in fact exactly what Tony Blair and other die-hard Remainers have called for, on the basis that they consider a Soft Brexit to be pointless, and believe that leaving out a compromise solution to Brexit should increase Remain’s chances of success.

The Hard Brexiteers would agree that a Soft Brexit is pointless, with some saying they would rather revoke Article 50 and remain in the EU for the time being, than be condemned to what they consider ‘vassal state’ status. So they too would probably endorse the binary choice if forced into a second referendum, even though they consider another referendum to be undemocratic as it could overturn the decision in the first referendum – keep asking till they get it ‘right’.

Indeed, the only people likely to be unhappy about not having a Soft Brexit option on the ballot are the reluctant Leavers: those who only want to leave the EU to respect the first referendum, and by and large also consider holding a second referendum to be undemocratic. They are keen instead to deliver Brexit but want to mitigate any downside by staying as close to the EU as is compatible with not actually remaining a member of it.

While that’s broadly the official Labour Party line, not having the option of campaigning for a Soft Brexit because the Government won’t deliver it, and so being forced into campaigning for Remain, could however come as a relief. Indeed senior Labour politicians are increasingly calling enthusiastically for just that. Apart from upsetting its many Leave supporters, Labour’s other main problem with this has been that it would have to commit unconditionally to a second referendum. But that Rubicon has surely now been well and truly crossed, albeit the words keep sticking in Mr Corbyn’s throat.

So do I think a Hard Brexit is now more or less likely after Mrs May’s departure? The answer is yes. It is both more and less likely, depending on whether the Westminster Parliament finds a way to force a second referendum.

If not, a Hard Brexit is more likely because of a Hard Brexit Prime Minister, and a French President more concerned about the effective functioning of the EU and his nationalist opposition back home than he is about Brexit issues. Both will be genuinely willing for the UK to leave the EU on 31st October without a withdrawal agreement, and so I expect them inexorably to be drawn to that result, not least as it will be easier and politically safer than compromising their principles. Indeed, the new UK Prime Minister would otherwise risk the same fate as Mrs May, but with even greater opprobrium in view of his or her expressly Hard Brexit mandate.

But a Hard Brexit is less likely if the Westminster Parliament does manage to legislate for a second referendum against the Government’s wishes, with just No Deal and Remain on the ballot, as then Remain should win.

With only a ‘No Deal’ Leave option on the ballot, most reluctant Leavers won’t go for that, whereas they would clearly have been attracted to a Soft Brexit compromise option. Add this to the expressly Remain parties’ strong showing in the UK’s European Elections (in fact winning a larger share of the vote than the expressly Hard Brexit parties, albeit on a modest turnout and getting fewer MEPs); most Conservative politicians not supporting a No Deal position; and Labour surely having to campaign for Remain with no Soft Brexit fence left to sit on.

For these reasons Remain should comfortably win a binary second referendum with only the relatively extreme options of No Deal or Remain on the ballot, making it critically different to the 2016 choice where how we would leave the EU was left open.

This is despite the Leavers’ much more passionate and engaging campaigning as evidenced by their performance in last week’s European Election, and indeed in the 2016 referendum. It’s also despite many Remainers feeling we’re already too far down the Brexit path to turn around, making it better to go through with it and deal with the consequences. That last consideration is hard to weigh as it’s more about how people feel when they vote than more objectively measurable factors. But the UK’s European Election result suggests most Remainers will stick to their guns, especially if faced with No Deal as the only alternative.

So despite inevitable frustration and embarrassment were we to change our minds and have to start fully engaging in the EU again, in my view Remain voters will substantially outnumber those willing to vote for a Hard Brexit in a binary No Deal or Remain referendum. That’s always assuming they don’t again campaign on just negative or esoteric macro-economic issues that don’t resonate with voters, failing to sell a positive vision of the EU. As Mrs May demonstrated in the 2017 General Election, a bad campaign can lead to defeat against the odds. But a binary second referendum will surely be for the Remainers to lose.

The key is whether the Westminster Parliament manages to force a second referendum on the Government. If not, get ready for a Hard Brexit.

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