By Peter Kellner*
Each morning, the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary email a word of the day to their subscribers. It is often a little-known word with topical relevance.
On Saturday, March 30—the day when the UK was scheduled to wake up for the first time to life outside the European Union—the word of the day was “kakistocracy.” It is a nineteenth-century noun, which the OED tells us means “government by the least suitable or competent citizens of a state.” It stems from the Greek kakistos, meaning “worst.”
It would be unfair to damn all, or even a majority, of British MPs in this way. But collectively, they have managed to lead their country to the edge of disaster. The next ten days will bring to a head the Brexit drama, which for three years has strained the UK’s constitution, threatened its social cohesion, terrified its businesses, appalled its friends, and delighted its enemies.
As things stand, the UK will crash out of the EU without a deal on April 12. There are two ways to avoid this fate. The first is for Parliament to vote after all for the withdrawal agreement, having so far rejected it three times. In that case, the UK will leave the EU in a more orderly way on May 22, though with large doubts about the long-term nature of UK-EU relations.
The second path away from the cliff edge is for the UK to obtain an extension of EU membership beyond May 22. This would be done either by the EU agreeing to an UK request for an extension or the UK exercising its right to revoke its decision to leave the EU.
For many months, revocation was considered to be vanishingly improbable. However, as the chance of crashing out without a deal has grown—with MPs unable to agree a way of stopping it—the popularity of revocation has grown too. This Sunday, March 31, the number of signatories on a petition favoring this approach passed six million. It is by far the largest number signing any petition since the UK government’s website created the facility for voters to express their views this way.
However, revocation would be a huge risk. It would be tricky enough to ask the public to vote again in a new referendum—and even more hazardous for MPs to decide simply to overturn the decision that 17.4 million people voted for three years ago. Revocation would make sense only if it is the start of a new public discussion, leading to a new referendum or general election in the next year or so, to obtain a public mandate for the way forward.
So: if MPs still refuse to back the withdrawal agreement but want to avoid both no-deal and revocation, then Parliament must seek an extension to the Brexit process. It is a sign of the madness of the times that the two main ideas to emerge over the weekend for achieving this have massive downsides.
The first is an early general election. Theresa May would decide that with the current Parliament in deadlock, a new Parliament with a new mandate is needed. However, the dangers to the Conservatives are immense. An early election would mean fighting it with Mrs. May as party leader. She proved to be a terrible campaigner in the last election two years ago, which was why the Conservatives lost their majority.
In addition, an early election would require the Tory party to make clear its position on Brexit—and there is no position that won’t meet angry internal resistance. The party’s divisions would be laid bare.
Put these two things together—a divided Conservative party led by a poor campaigner—and there is a real chance that many Tory votes would leak to UKIP and/or the new Brexit party set up by UKIP’s former leader, Nigel Farage. No wonder that many Tories threatened over the weekend to resist an early election.
The second idea for breaking the deadlock is for Parliament to vote for a deal that would keep the UK permanently in the EU’s Customs Union. This has the advantage that it might solve the problem of trade across the Irish border; and, more generally, allow frictionless trade and supply lines between the UK and the EU to continue. It might limit the economic cost of Brexit.
However, such a deal would also limit the UK’s ability to strike new trade deals with other countries. That was one of the main objectives of Brexit. To abandon it would justifiably rile all those who campaigned for Leave and many who voted for it. What is more, the UK would have to abide by new EU trading rules and agreements, but without having any say in them. Far from “taking back control,” as the Leave campaigners demanded, the UK would have less say on many things than it does now.
Even that assumes that the EU would agree to keep the UK in the Customs Union. My guess is that it would—but that it would demand a high price: continuing payments into the EU’s budget, and alignment with most current and future single market rules (again, with the UK having no say in them). Other ideas for a “soft” Brexit, such as one known as “Common Market 2.0,” suffer the same essential defect. They would save the UK from economic ruin, but at the price of political servitude to many of the most important EU decisions.
The downsides to both a general election and a soft Brexit mean that Mrs. May still has an outside chance of securing a majority in Parliament this week for her withdrawal agreement—perhaps accompanied by a promise to MPs to give them a greater say in the negotiations in the months ahead over the UK’s long-term relationship with the EU.
Alternatively, Parliament might build a majority for a combined proposal: a soft Brexit of some kind, subject to a “confirmatory vote.” A referendum would give voters a clear choice: go ahead with that form of Brexit or stay in the EU after all. This could attract both pro-Remain MPs (who want a referendum) and pro-soft-Brexit MPs (who want a closer relationship with the EU than what Mrs. May’s deal proposes).
If neither proposal is agreed this week, then the chances of a no-deal Brexit next week will grow. I do not believe this will happen. MPs oppose it by nearly four to one. Business leaders and trade unions are appalled by the idea. It would be simultaneously catastrophic, absurd, and avoidable.
I cannot believe it will happen, although I am not quite sure how it will be averted. Perhaps the nuclear option of revocation will be needed—or a national cross-party coalition government, mooted over the weekend by former Conservative prime minister John Major. Whatever happens, Britain and the EU have a fateful fortnight ahead.
*Kellner is a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, where his research focuses on Brexit, populism, and electoral democracy.