By Brian Wilson
A general election would force parties to state their positions on Brexit, writes Brian Wilson On a crisp sunny day this week, a friend observed that he associates such conditions at this time of year with “election weather”. We might not have long to wait, in order to put that theory to the test. However distressing the prospect, we need another general election, even if we probably won’t get one. I have reached that reluctant conclusion in the light of the Windrush scandal and the stalemate in Mrs May’s Cabinet over the key issue of a customs union. It is unusual to advocate a general election without the slightest idea of how it would turn out. But these are exceptional times.
The overwhelming need is for clarity and leadership, both of which are notable for their spectacular absence. Countries can run without governments, as Italy regularly demonstrates. Neither is it a novelty for the UK to have one which is in office but not in power, to quote Norman Lamont on John Major. It is nothing new to have Ministers feuding about a key policy issue, to the exclusion of parliament and country.
What makes the current situation unique is that decisions with truly historic implications must be taken soon due to the EU referendum result and Mrs May’s decision to lock her government into a schedule for withdrawal which expires in under ten months. The circumstances in which these decisions are evolving are chaotic.
This column has taken a relaxed and, I hope, consistent view of Brexit and its likely course. While passing controversies grabbed headlines, I reasoned that the hard work of negotiation was taking place beneath the surface. All logic suggested this would lead to a dual outcome – respecting the referendum result while ending up as close as possible to where we are now, in relations with the continuing EU.
This latter accommodation should not be a subterfuge for frustrating the result. Good can come from Brexit, including other trade relationships. It is well within the wit of diplomatic negotiation to barter benefits to the UK from a new-found status outside the EU with concessions on matters where it is mutually beneficial for the relationship to continue. I think that is exactly what has been going on and could lead towards an outcome that might satisfy the majority of the Brexit-weary population.
But there was always going to be a point upon which – to quote Mrs Thatcher – “advisers advise and ministers decide”. That is the customs union or whatever variant. I thought the imperative governing this issue was inescapable. You cannot have a hard border, however dressed up, within Ireland. Therefore you cannot have a hard border between the UK and EU. As so often, the Irish tail must wag the British dog which may be annoying to some but cannot be avoided.
Mrs May appeared to have accepted this in December when she committed, in the absence of a specific solution, to “full alignment with the rules of the Internal Market and Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South co-operation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 Act”. There is no sign of a specific solution, nor will there be. There are many other reasons for a Customs Union or some close variant with the EU. Not least of them is the calculation by the British Freight Transport Association that an eight-minute delay in Customs clearance at Dover would cause a tail-back stretching through the Dartford Crossing of the Thames and into Essex. Not a great vote-winner. Mrs May seems finally to have also accepted these arguments.
The problem now is that she appears incapable of delivering the outcomes that flow from them due to resistance from her own senior colleagues. This is entirely a feud within the upper echelons of the Tory Party, with the rest of the country as spectators.
What are the consequences in terms of parliamentary accountability? Heavy defeats in the Lords are routinely ignored. House of Commons votes are frustrated in order to avoid the embarrassment of defeat. The DUP continues to protect Mrs May from a substantial proportion of her own Parliamentary party. It is undemocratic and unsustainable.
So where does Windrush come into it? First, it has seriously undermined Mrs May’s position inside Parliament and beyond. Everyone knows she was the architect of a nasty policy for which others, notably Amber Rudd, have taken the rap. Respect for her fortitude may have been growing but history has caught up with her. Equally, it has left her with even fewer allies in the Cabinet while a queue forms for a leadership bid. The more Mrs May prevaricates, the weaker she becomes. And the weaker she becomes, the more likely it is that Brexit will be defined by her tormentors, regardless of the implications. She is trapped by the failure to act decisively and does not have long to escape.
The case for a general election is that it would force parties and candidates, at this crucial juncture, to state positions on Brexit and seek a mandate on that basis. The private manoeuvrings in Cabinet sub-committees would give way to an open debate and the probability (though not certainty) is that a Prime Minister would emerge with the authority to lead. It might be Mrs May. It might not.
There are two mechanisms through which a general election can be forced. One is for two-thirds of MPs to vote for it which, without government support, is impossible. The second is through a vote of no confidence which obviously requires one to be tabled – a rare event which circumstances must justify.
The Customs Union issue could create them and, if so, the opportunity should be taken. Events at that point become unpredictable and would create risks for every party. But the biggest risk at present comes from the country being in hock to an irreconcilable division within the Tory Party which has existed for decades and is now being played out for absurdly high stakes.