In the Introduction to my book Brexit Time, I observed that Brexit was not the United Kingdom’s ‘manifest destiny’. Rather it was a choice. And it remains a choice.
We have now reached the point where decisive choices can and need to be made. The options are clear. Under the Johnson Government, the option of No Deal Brexit is actively being pursued. For the opposition parties the options are either for the UK to remain in the European Union or to exit on terms that will see the UK maintain a close alignment and cooperation with the EU.
These are not new options. What is new is that there is now a clear path towards finally making a decision.
The first step is to force the Conservative Government to seek a mandate for a No Deal Brexit through a General Election. That means preventing the Prime Minister from either proroguing Parliament or choosing the date of a General Election beyond the 31 October deadline after which the UK would automatically crash out of the EU.
Before a General Election can take place, MPs will have to pass a motion of no confidence in Boris Johnson’s Government AND form a unity government. Although there has been speculation and controversy over who might lead that unity government, what is more important is what steps it puts in place for a General Election that would allow the electorate to either back a Conservative No Deal Brexit, or pave the way for the other two options – Remain or a softer Brexit – to be tested.
In order for there to be General Election before the UK automatically leaves the EU on 31 October, a further extension to the Article 50 process might well be needed. Nonetheless, for yet another extension to be granted – the third such extension – the EU will want to know that a General Election is likely to produce more rather than less certainty. That means that opposition parties need to agree not just a unity government to take control over the process, but a unity position on the substantive alternatives to a No Deal Brexit.
This is why I think the opposition parties need to come up with a common ‘Brexit manifesto’ to contest a General Election. This would not, of course, replace the party manifestos; after all, a General Election would be about more than just Brexit. But when it comes to outlining the party positions on Brexit, the opposition parties need to agree a common platform.
The difficulty for the opposition parties is the split between those for whom the only viable option is for the UK to remain an EU Member State and those for whom a Brexit alternative based on a Withdrawal Agreement, transition and close future relationship with the EU is a credible option.
The Liberal Democrats might want to maintain the clarity of their current pro-Remain position which has seen them make advances in the polls. The problem with that is two fold. For the Lib Dems a simple Revoke-Remain strategy is not going to attract them the votes of Conservatives for whom Brexit is still their preference but not a No Deal Brexit. Unless they are prepared to accept a compromise position – and with it being highly unlikely that traditional Conservative voters would switch instead to a Corbyn-led Labour Party – those Conservative Leave voters may feel they have no alternative to backing a No Deal Conservative Party under Boris Johnson. For the Labour Party, MPs in Leave-voting constituencies are unlikely to get behind a Brexit manifesto that simply gives voters a choice between a No Deal Brexit or a Revoke-Remain alternative.
My proposal is that the opposition parties unite around offering voters a second step in the form of a referendum with a straight choice between Remain and a Brexit that would keep the UK in the Single Market and a partner with the EU on other forms of cooperation including security. The option of a No Deal Brexit would not need to be put in a referendum because the preceding General Election would either have seen that option accepted – with a Johnson government having a fresh mandate – or it would have been rejected.
This approach allows the key choices to be made. If Boris Johnson wins a General Election he will have a mandate to pursue his preferred form of Brexit. If he loses and either one of the opposition parties has a majority or some type of coalition is formed, the new government would be committed to giving voters a final choice between staying in the EU or leaving the EU but under different terms. Voters would know that this alternative to a No Deal would be on offer regardless of which opposition party they voted for.
It is clear that Labour is backing a strategy of a General Election followed by a referendum. It is imperative that this becomes a shared strategy of the opposition parties.
For this strategy to be viable there does need to be greater clarity and agreement about what a credible alternative Leave option might look like. My own view is that an EEA model is a credible alternative in securing continuing access to the Single Market. It would eliminate customs duties between the UK and the EU and maintain regulatory alignment not just at the point of departure but over time. There are understandable grounds for reticence about the EEA Agreement given that it is almost thirty years old. It would be helpful if the incoming European Commission could signal its willingness to review the operation of the EEA Agreement and how it might be adjusted in light of developments in the last three decades and as the EU reflects on its own future institutional architecture and relations with its near neighbours.
The challenge for the opposition parties would be to approve a Withdrawal Agreement that they have otherwise opposed. The basis for a change of position would be a very different vision of the future for the UK as a whole and a credible alternative to the backstop underpinned by the principle of consent.
Under the Withdrawal Agreement, the UK would enter into a transition period ending on 31 December 2020 or later if it is extended. It is conceivable that an EEA-type future relationship could be ready to commence on 1 January 2021 or a year or two later if a deeper review of the EEA approach was to be undertaken.
During the transition period, Northern Ireland would be in the same position as the rest of the UK with EU customs and Single Market rules applicable during the transition period. Thereafter, an EEA-style agreement would avoid the need for frontier regulatory controls on the island of Ireland but as the EEA Agreement does not create a Customs Union a different approach would need to be considered to secure the avoidance of a hard border. To that end, the UK and the EU should commit to negotiating an agreement to replace the ‘backstop’ under the Withdrawal Agreement to keep Northern Ireland within EU customs arrangements (in addition to its participation in the Single Market through an EEA-style agreement). This new agreement should be the subject of a referendum in Northern Ireland, thereby ensuring that the Good Friday Agreement principle of consent would apply to any difference in approach between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. To avoid the Withdrawal Agreement backstop provisions being triggered, this new agreement and a referendum to approve it would need to be in place during the transition period.
All of which will require strong signals from the EU as to its willingness not just to pursue this alternative Brexit but also to implement the steps necessary to ensure that a transition will be successful. This will entail revisiting and revising the text of the Political Declaration to reflect different Brexit priorities. My own view as expressed in an earlier outline proposal is that an ‘Implementation Protocol’ to be added to the Withdrawal Agreement would give confidence as to the commitment of the EU and the UK to move from the status quo to a new set of arrangements.
It is only by offering a credible alternative Brexit that a future referendum choice between Remain and Leave can legitimately respect the interests of voters. Leave voters will have the opportunity in a General Election to vote for No Deal if that’s what they want and again to vote for a different type of Brexit – or indeed to Remain – if Boris Johnson is unable to form a government after an election. Remain voters will know that whatever opposition parties they vote for, the option of remaining in the EU will be put to them in a future referendum alongside a compromise Brexit which they might not want but which would be preferable to a No Deal Brexit.
A General Election is the legitimate way to approve or reject a No Deal Brexit. And if it is rejected, it is only right that voters can choose between remaining in the EU or leaving with a credible alternative Brexit.
Finally, choices can be made that will be both decisive and legitimate.