Most of the EU remained focused on the European elections and the build-up to the Future of Europe Summit in Sibiu, Romania this week. Whilst in the UK the last week has been dominated by the fallout from last week’s local elections, which saw both the Conservatives and Labour lose seats to an assorted variety of parties and independent candidates. In the immediate aftermath both main parties sought to interpret the meaning of the results for the current impasse in parliament on Brexit.
The Westminster Parliament remains the key to Brexit. If it votes for a deal, the UK will leave the EU very quickly afterwards and all the focus will turn onto the second phase of negotiations and the future trade relations. However, there is still not a majority for any specific Brexit deal or to leave the EU without a deal.
This impasse meant that Cabinet Office Minister David Lidington confirmed what had long been suspected, that the UK had run out of time to legislate for Brexit before the 23rd May and would have to take part in European elections in two weeks’ time.
The government’s stated aim is to reach an agreement on Brexit so that the UK can still leave before the 1st July so that new MEPs don’t actually have to take their seats, although later reports also indicated August as a possible end date.
To that end talks with the Labour Party continued this week, amid briefing and counter-briefing from both sides on their content and progress.
As the results of the elections became clear the government narrative very quickly centred around the poor showing for both main parties being an expression of frustration from the electorate about the Brexit impasse and a message to “get Brexit done”. The Labour Party narrative about the results was more mixed, reflecting their shock on net losses of seats, rather than gains of several hundred, as they had expected at the start of the night.
After initially agreeing that they needed to get Brexit done, senior Labour figures clarified this meant ‘whichever way’, and the Labour Party European elections manifesto keeps open the possibility of a referendum if their alternative plan for Brexit is not agreed or a general election held.
The main beneficiaries of the election were the Liberal Democrats, who gained many new councillors. They are an unambiguously remain party, so on the surface the analysis that their gains were as a result of frustration with Brexit seems misplaced. However, as the new Brexit party didn’t stand at all and UKIP only put up candidates in a few areas, it seems likely that the Conservative and Labour vote was hit by many of their previous supporters not voting at all, and that almost certainly was down mainly to Brexit frustration.
Against that background some negotiations continued between both parties, around what a deal between them could look like. Dynamic alignment on workers’ rights legislation with the EU, a key Labour demand, has already been offered by the government before and is believed to have been fleshed out further in the talks. A potential extension of UK membership of the customs union until the next scheduled general election in 2022 was also apparently proposed by the government. In reality this is only a marginal extension to the existing transition period due to end in December 2020, but widely expected to last longer due to the complexity of negotiating future trading relationships and alternative arrangements to the Northern Ireland backstop.
Senior Labour figures briefed that the government was not really putting anything new on the table. Whether or not that is true, it is a useful narrative for both sides. The government is anxious to avoid being seen to give too much ground to Labour, and Jeremy Corbyn in particular. Meanwhile the Labour leadership is very far from sure that it wants to do a deal with the Conservatives, even if it gets most of its asks, so any excuse for the talks to collapse is useful to retain in the back pocket. Any deal is fraught with risks for both party leaderships, and even with their support is far from sure to get through the House of Commons.
However, the irony of this is that both sides are arguing about tiny differences. The essence of both parties’ proposals are more or less the same, as the parameters for the deal were set by the EU. Within those very tight parameters Labour wants more explicit promises on labour rights and a longer, or permanent customs union. The conservatives want the ability to do trade deals at the end of the period of customs union.
All these issues are for the second phase of negotiations and do not need to be solved in the withdrawal agreement, and so could be fudged at this stage. Yet the partisan nature of British politics means that neither party trusts the other enough to back a deal which is substantially influenced by the other side. Add in the fact that this is the key moment for Brexit, as backing the deal means Brexit becomes irreversible, and that all the other opposition parties, including the DUP, are likely to vote against any deal. The end result is that there are not enough MPs to get a deal over the line.
In fact support for remaining in the European Union has hardened on the Labour back benches in recent weeks, with many Labour MPs citing gains by remain backing parties in the local elections, and a deal without a referendum attached to it would see a massive Labour rebellion.
To win a majority the government would also need to be sure of retaining sufficient support on its own back benches. Any move towards more permanent customs arrangements or a closer alignment with EU rules is likely to win less support than the 199 Conservative MPs who backed the government’s deal at the first vote in January.
So, whilst in theory a Labour-Conservative Brexit deal should win majority support, if they were able to trust each other enough to agree a deal, the numbers are far less comfortable than either side would like if they are to take the political risk of joining forces. The main risk for both the Prime Minister and Jeremy Corbyn remains that even a deal backed by both party leaders doesn’t have enough support in Parliament, due to likely rebellions on both the Conservative and Labour back benches.
It is therefore likely that the cross party talks ultimately collapse, as it really is difficult to see any way that they can succeed.
Despite this, the Prime Minister has hinted that she will again bring forward votes on Brexit before the European elections, most likely later next week. This may be to put extra pressure on Labour to agree a deal or it may to once again demonstrate the government’s commitment to delivering Brexit and highlight those blocking the UK leaving the EU before voters head to the polls. The Leader of the Commons, Andrea Leadsom, confirmed that the Withdrawal Agreement itself would definitely not be on the agenda next week, so any Brexit votes will most likely not be legally binding.
In the EU meanwhile there was a concerted effort not to focus on Brexit at the Future of Europe Summit in Romania. The summit was originally envisioned as the EU’s post-Brexit reboot and a handy piece of political advertising for the governing parties just ahead of the European elections. The fact that the UK is still a member is not the only fly in the ointment, with wider divisions opening up on treaty change, migration and budget priorities. If the Brexit delay continues beyond the summer then it will run up against the battles over the next Commission, and the preparations for negotiations on the EU’s next seven-year budget plan, something the EU is keen to avoid if it can.
As ever though, anything can still happen, and as much as ever, nothing is certain in the Brexit process or how it will end.