Brexit will obsess the political class and estrange the public
In a week’s time, our MPs will have packed up for the Summer recess and will be settling down to their traditional pass-times of making pleasantries at constituency events, exposing bad taste in casual dress, and long-distance plotting. By the time they return on a full-time basis (they pop back for a week in September before conference season), more than a quarter of the time set aside for Britain’s Brexit negotiations with the EU will have passed.
In the months that follow, Brexit will dominate like no issue since the Financial Crisis; possibly like no issue since World War II. It will be all-encompassing. It will piss off a lot of the public who would really rather politicians concentrated on the NHS, education, policing, the economy or any number of other domestic issues that directly affect their lives but that’s not going to happen: for 2017-18, politics is Brexit.
We’ve already seen the skirmishes. Buoyed by their perceived election success, Labour is on the offensive, with Keir Starmer listing their demands for amendments under the threat of voting down the bill if he can gain some Tory rebels or peel off the DUP. That assumes he can keep all the Labour MPs on board, which is not necessarily a safe assumption. If the Repeal Act fails then existing EU-derived rights may not be protected, which might lead some Labour MPs to believe that a bad bill is better than no bill.
That might be a tactical error. Where it pushes its own agenda, the Labour leadership is likely to expose the divisions in its own ranks as much as (if not more than) those in the government’s. There are many ways from which one can be opposed to something but few from which to support. That’s even more true of Brexit, which necessarily involves picking many least-worst options, than it is usually. Whether even Corbyn is fully aware of those implications has to be doubtful.
But if Labour might struggle where it is advocating a specific course, that’s as nothing compares with the difficulties the government will have. So far, the problems have just been those of principle; from hereon, the splits will not only be between those who think the objective should be one thing or another, but also between those who think that what’s agreed represents a good deal in a practical sense, and those who dissent one way or another.
That’s why tactically, it might be better for Labour to travel lighter and to counter-punch against the government’s position and/or handling: there will always be a left-of-centre criticism available.
In any case, the biggest criticism that could be made at the moment is that its whole Brexit strategy exists best at a conceptual level and isn’t translating into real-world positions, as this week’s row over Euratom suggests. There will be a great many more practical applications of Brexit to come, and a great many more special interest groups with cases to plead.
The year ahead will be hard for the government. There will be little public sympathy for engaging so heavily in a process that is remote to many yet which still adversely affects them; which will be the prompt for endless rows within the Tory Party, within parliament and between the UK and the rest of the EU; which will distract from more practical matters and which may of itself cause an economic slowdown. Theresa May will need to bring balance between the nationalist and business wings of the party, while Labour not unnaturally tries to both exploit those divisions and advocate a different strategy (one which will look better simply for not having been tried).
I don’t expect her to be toppled during it for two simple reasons: firstly, it would be incredibly disruptive and to force a change would be to invite the change taking all the blame for Brexit running into difficulties; and secondly, there’s no obvious alternative who could clearly do a better job and provide a more effective alternative policy. Those conditions may change, in which case she would become very vulnerable, but we’re not there now.
p.s. What will also have passed by the time parliament reconvenes will be the German federal election. That should remove one uncertainty but quite what it delivers remains perhaps the most significant ‘unknown’ on the EU side for now. Merkel should be returned as chancellor (but how often have such assumptions been overturned these last few years?!), but the nature and composition of her coalition is up in the air. The 2013 election produced a grand coalition as the only viable option. That may well be the case again – in which case arch-Europhile Martin Schulz can expect a plum job – but with the SPD polling under 25% at the moment and the FPD likely to make a return to the Bundestag, a ‘Jamaica coalition’ (black-yellow-green) is also possible, which would produce a different dynamic within Germany and, quite possibly, the EU.