Not even the most United Kingdom-sceptic European could have imagined that just a year after the Brexit referendum Britain would appear to be teetering on the brink of disorder. Indeed, over the past year the group behind this scenario planning / train crash project analysed the various possibilities of danger to both the British state and the union of the United Kingdom; but even four months ago the dangers seemed no more than potentials, each contingent on quite a number of other causalities. These have largely been swept away, for three core reasons.
First, the snap general election on June 8. It returned the Conservative party to power with more seats but without the absolute majority it had before, alongside a strongly rejuvenated Labour party, with nearly as many votes if not seats. This was a shock result, that reflected strong public discontent with the ruling Conservatives in two main areas: economic and social policies, as well as their stated position on delivering a “hard” Brexit, thus a total break with the EU, its customs union and single market.
Second, the fire in Grenfell Tower on June 14. A public housing estate in London, situated in the richest borough in the UK, Kensington and Chelsea, burned throughout the night, claiming eighty lives but possibly more. It is assumed that inappropriate cladding used as a cost saving measure was the cause for the fire spreading. It was a tragedy, a shock, and in some way also an emblem of the social and economic divisions in the country.
And third, the three Islamist terrorist attacks of the spring—on Westminster Bridge in March, in Manchester Arena in May, and on London Bridge, just days before the election. All three were perpetrated by British-born men, barring one accomplice in the last attack, a fact that brought to the fore issues of cultural difference, that also highlighted the overall sense of national unease.
Each of these three would be cause for possibly postponing the Brexit negotiations with the EU in order to recalibrate the UK position. Instead, the minority Conservative party government opened negotiations on June 19, continuing with its “hard” line as if the election had not happened and the national mood had not radically changed. To understand the meaning of this move, and its potentially negative impact, we looked at the intricate issues at play in the UK, that already seem to be driving towards a train crash.
Political and Constitutional Fragility
The Brexit referendum result, and the type of Brexit the UK government seeks, imposes serious strains on the political functioning of Westminster, both within itself and with Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Whatever the outcome of negotiations, the tensions within the United Kingdom, as reflected above, suggest it is going to look quite different at the end of Brexit than at the beginning, both in Westminster and beyond. Moreover, managing the political and possible constitutional fragmentation will consume significant national resource, as already evident.
The constitutional tensions have effectively been on display since the referendum in June 2016. The immediate resignation of then-Prime Minister, David Cameron, coupled with a realization that neither camp had prepared for an outcome in which the UK leaves the EU, led to a political meltdown. It seemed to end when the ruling Conservative party rapidly nominated rather than elected Theresa May as Prime Minister, though Labour descended into a near civil war. The new government chose to follow a line of very hard Brexit (though Prime Minister May had been a Remain supporter), brooking no debate, even in Parliament. This led to a number of legal challenges, most significantly by Gina Miller who sued the government in the High Court over its attempt to invoke Brexit (Article 50) without Parliamentary approval. She won, but the government appealed the decision at the Supreme Court, where in January 2017 it was upheld—causing the right wing press to unleash strong invectives against the judiciary, so contributing to a sense of both constitutional and political uncertainty.
By springtime, it seemed the Conservative party had rallied round its new leader while Labour remain riven with personal and ideological challenges to its left-leaning leader, Jeremy Corbyn. It was this apparent imbalance between the two major parties that led Prime Minister May on April 19 to call a snap general election for June 8—so seeking to banish any lingering sense of uncertainty about her Premiership while gaining a much larger majority behind her in the Brexit negotiations. This seemed an attainable goal in April: polls suggested the Conservative Party had 48 percent support, against just 24 percent for Labour, with the Liberal Democrats (LibDems) at 12 percent and the UK Independence Party (UKIP) at 7 percent. However, just seven weeks later the election returned the Conservatives with 42.4 percent of the vote, Labour with 40 percent, the LibDems at 7.4 percent and UKIP at 1.8 percent.
The first conclusion from the poll is that the two parties that were at polar ends of the spectrum on Brexit did badly: UKIP, the motivating force behind the Brexit referendum, is effectively dead as a political party; while the LibDems, the only party that ran on an anti-Brexit platform, was clearly not convincing, picking up seats but losing vote share. The second and main conclusion is that the nation is strongly divided, not only between the two main parties but on an array of subjects, from funding health and education to immigration and Brexit—which was hardly mentioned by any politician, despite being the reason the election was called. However, it clearly loomed large over the vote, with the outcome suggesting a much increased group of people in the UK seeking to decidedly soften the form of exit.
So far their opinion has been ignored: Prime Minister May may have lost her electoral gamble, but she still presides over the largest party in what the UK calls a “hung parliament,” with no opposition combination of votes capable of unseating her. She is thus a much weakened and very derided leader, who is clinging to her only clear backers: the hard Brexiteers in her own party and across the nation. Moreover, her only option for securing some form of Parliamentary backing if not majority, has been to enter into a support agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), an ultra-conservative party from Northern Ireland (NI), in return for hard cash—one billion pound increase in the NI budget. However, not only has this been offensive to many in her own party, let alone the opposition, it also deeply aggravates the constitutional crisis that potentially threatens the United Kingdom itself.
Northern Ireland, which last year voted to Remain in the EU, has been in political disarray since January, when the power-sharing agreement of the 1997 Good Friday Agreement collapsed. An election to the NI Assembly in March resulted in a statistical dead heat between the DUP and Sinn Fein, the nationalist party, which is yet to be resolved. The June national election also returned the usual divide between the two, with Sinn Fein getting seven Westminster seats (that it traditionally never takes up in protest of British rule) and the DUP getting ten. It is those DUP seats that Theresa May needs to pass any legislation, notably on Brexit, and she appears to have bought them for £1 billion, in a deal to be revised in two years (thus potentially after Brexit has occurred). However, the fact the DUP is also the counterparty in the political impasse in Belfast, and the UK is a guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement together with the government of Ireland, has led many senior politicians across the board to voice deep concern about the DUP-Conservative agreement. Ultimately, there is a strong fear that the UK government will not be able to be neutral in its handling of the issues surrounding the Northern Ireland Assembly so long as it depends on the DUP in Westminster. Add to this the anger felt in Scotland and Wales—as well as some regions of England—at the extra cash going to NI, and it is difficult to suggest the Conservatives are stable in government. Equally, it is no easier to assume that Labour is a government in waiting, despite declarations on the matter. Britain is now experiencing an uneasy stand-off, that could be further quickly unbalanced.
These political and constitutional uncertainties have unfolded alongside uncomfortable economic realities with Brexit beginning to bite. While not the snap collapse of the economy predicted by Remain supporters, the UK went from being the best performing developed economy after the referendum to the worst in early 2017. Inflation has risen with the decline in the value of the pound, while wages have remained static—or indeed, declined in real terms. Investment in the automobile sector, one of crucial importance to manufacturing, plummeted this year, while increasing numbers of banks and insurance companies have started to create outposts in other EU capitals, hedging their bets against a hard Brexit. In addition, the government ministries charged with managing Brexit are still short staffed, and apparently in turf wars. The government is openly divided between May and the hard Brexiteers and a faction demanding a soft Brexit, that would allow access to the single market—at the very least, with a long transition period between leaving and any divorce coming into law.
Polls suggest increasing numbers of voters would like to retain some form of EU citizenship, and public support for remaining in the single market has also risen. However, Westminster appears deaf to this mood shift, each party still lacking policy coherence. Labour never presented a clear position on Brexit during the election, and remains divided on the issue. Corbyn seems to harbour Eurosceptic inclinations, not due to fears of sovereignty like the Conservatives but because he still sees the EU as a capitalist enterprise untied against workers. However, last week fifty Labour Members of Parliament defied his order to vote for leaving the single market, reflecting a deep rift in the party. The Conservatives are no less divided between pro-Remain MPs and hard Brexiteers, while the unelected House of Lords, in which the majority of members are pro-Remain, has vowed to scrutinise any Brexit legislation with an eye to blocking it.
In 2016 it seemed the UK was set for a confrontation with the EU; a year later it appears it has entered a confrontation with itself. The political meltdown that appeared to have been averted last summer was actually postponed and unmasked by the June election. Prime Minister May may have launched the Brexit negotiations in a determined manner, but it is far from clear how representative she or her government are, or how long they will be in power. They are the drivers of a train in the midst of a crash.
This is the second in a series of blog posts examining the impacts of Brexit on the UK, the EU and transatlantic relations. Read the first post: “The UK and EU Must Moderate Brexit and the US Must Get Smart About What is Unfolding.“
Dr. Ilana Bet-El is a Strategic Advisor, writer and historian based in Brussels. With a background in the UN and academe, she has worked extensively in on complex multilateral issues and published widely on security, defence, the EU and European history.