Has parliament taken back control and if so, are MPs about to shed their traditional party loyalties to prevent a no-deal Brexit?

by Professor Simon Deakin, CBR, University of Cambridge and Professor David Howarth, Co-Chair of Cambridge Public Policy SRI, University of Cambridge in discussion with CBR Policy Associate Boni Sones OBE

Who blinks first may well determine the future of the UK’s Brexit negotiations with the EU, but with all eyes again on Parliament this week all bets are off as to whether Theresa May and her government can survive this constitutional crisis.

Predictions of mass resignations from the Cabinet, even the formation of a government of National unity with opposition MPs serving in it in order to prevent what is termed a no-deal Brexit, may or may not come to fruition but one thing is certain #Brexit is set to dominate UK politics for years to come even if the UK does leave the EU on the 29th March 2019.

In this exclusive Centre for Business Research, University of Cambridge podcast Simon Deakin Professor of Law at the University of Cambridge and Director of the Centre for Business Research, and David Howarth, Professor of Law and Public Policy at the University of Cambridge discuss what’s likely to happen in the Brexit negotiations in both the short and longer term.

Both agree that unless parliamentarians do act quickly, then a no-deal #Brexit is highly likely but that if politicians do put the national interest rather than party loyalties first, this can be prevented.

However even if the UK does leave the EU as planned on the 29th March 2019 they both believe it is still likely that Brexit and our trading relationships with the rest of the World will remain the dominate debate in British politics for many years to come, possibly until the UK decides to re-enter the EU at some future date taking on board all its Treaty commitments,  including free movement of people and full monetary union.

One possible outcome of Brexit says Howarth is that UK politics itself will realign along different allegiances while Deakin believes the EU will continue with its integrationist plans and think itself better off with the UK outside it now as it has other pressing issues to confront.

The EU, to date, says Deakin has given no indication that it will amend the contentious Northern Ireland backstop arrangement which is said to be preventing Theresa May getting parliamentary approval to her Withdrawal Agreement which was voted down by an historic margin of 230 votes.

While Howarth explains that referendums have no constitutional base in the UK parliament and that there could be good grounds for going back to the electorate to hold another one given that the result was so close and that opinions may have changed.

Howarth suggested even the Queen may eventually have to be consulted if Parliament were to agree  some process such as 450 MPs signing an Early Day Motion to show it has no confidence in the current government. A government of national unity could then be formed.

Whatever happens both agree that the consequences of Brexit are profound and long lasting.

Deakin key quote: “The upcoming EU elections are going to be a decisive moment for the EU. Cohesion and unity within the EU and its own future is very unclear, Brexit is a distraction, and it may also explain why the EU may not want to make a different offer to us so far as the Withdrawal Agreement is concerned. The people currently leading the EU Juncker, Tusk, Merkel, Macron, are still committed to an integrationist agenda to varying degrees. They also want the existing EU model to be continued and this is partly why Brexit has been such a big issue for the UK. Frictionless trade and free trade go hand in hand with a certain regulatory model – a co-ordinated economy model – Christian Democracy or Social Democratic, this is at stake at the moment in the EU elections coming up but that’s still their model. That integrationist protective model has served mainland Europe really well for the past four decades – not-withstanding the financial crisis – and the UK as well; it has served us really well. The UK’s departure from the EU would probably help those who want to pursue that particular integrationist agenda. That is something we have to consider when thinking about the psychology of Brexit.  It helps to explain why there are not lots of people rushing forward in Brussels right now to help the UK .When Tusk and Juncker say they want the UK back in the fold they really want the UK for that long term integrationist agenda. Remainers and Leavers in the UK are really arguing about that as well. Most Remainers would see a social market economy as worth pursing for the UK and those that don’t want it are largely on the Leave or Eurosceptic side.

“If Brexit were to happen in a chaotic way the huge cost of that would be borne by the UK. Very little cost in the short run would be borne by the EU and maybe going forward for the EU the UK’s absence would not in any way harm the integrationist agenda. It there is a no-deal and a chaotic departure so far as the UK is concerned the issue of our relationship with the EU will not end. It will be right back on the agenda almost straight away and with UK policy makers, because of the need to discuss an FTA (Free Trade Agreement) with the EU and to deal with the Irish border problem. Given the closeness of the vote in 2016 and the possible consequences of a no-deal Brexit there will continue to be a significant political movement across both parties for a closer relationship with the EU and it may well turn into a position that says we should consider re-entering the EU. That won’t disappear. The EU and our relationship to the EU will continue to dominate British politics for the foreseeable future, even with the UK signing up to free movement and full monetary union; let’s see.

“There may even be a political realignment or some kind of national unity government that isn’t off the agenda even if Brexit takes place on the 29th March 2019, because what we are going to see with ever greater urgency is a  need for a deal with the EU of some sort, even if there is a no-deal Brexit. We may want to recalibrate our relationship with the EU and it comes right back onto the agenda very quickly after March if there is a no-deal Brexit. “

Howarth key quote:  “The manifesto mandate system of government that we have is the system on which parliamentary procedure is built. We are seeing that break down and I think we are seeing it break down not just for short term reasons but for long term reasons too. That system requires there to be two things. One is that most members of parliament are only in parliament to become ministers. That is their objective and then maybe getting something done when you become a minister. Then they realise they need to be prime ministers and so on. Therefore they don’t want parliamentary procedures to get in the way of ministers even if they themselves are not ministers. The other is that parties in parliament are all aimed at being in government, and there are only two parties but we have seen the rise of the SNP which is a party whose goal in the Commons is not for its leaders to become ministers, in fact they want to withdraw from Westminster, and also the LD don’t think they will have a ministerial career.   Their goals are incompatible with the mandate manifesto theory of politics. You combine that with having referendum and competing plebiscites and you have a situation of constitutional confusion and the question is what is going to happen in the future? Are we going to snap back into a two party system, maybe Scotland becomes independent or they stop voting SNP, or do we move to a situation where people face the fact that Parliament is not full of people who care about their careers and being a minister?   Will we have a parliament that is going to matter more and is going to debate what to do rather than permanent election campaigning? If so proper decisions will be made in parliament.  If that happens we have to recast parliamentary procedure and think about what kind of thing do we want parliament to decide? What powers should a government have, assuming it is going to be a minority government, through being in government? I don’t think people have ever begun to think that through.”

Listen to the podcast

In this exclusive Centre for Business Research, University of Cambridge podcast Simon Deakin Professor of Law at the University of Cambridge and Director of the Centre for Business Research, and David Howarth, Professor of Law and Public Policy at the University of Cambridge discuss what’s likely to happen in the Brexit negotiations in both the short and longer term.

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