Trading a general election for the Withdrawal Agreement?

by Stephen Fisher.

In my previous analyses and predictions for the Brexit impasse I failed to give enough consideration to the possibility of MPs passing the Withdrawal Agreement without voting on the political declaration (both documents here). Assuming that the government does not collapse before the 10thApril, I now think that’s the most likely outcome. This is mainly because I suspect Theresa May would be willing to offer Jeremy Corbyn a general election in exchange for support for the Withdrawal Agreement, and that would be more attractive to her than the other options available.

The current political declaration and Labour’s demand for changes to the political declaration of 6thFebruary are both compatible with the Withdrawal Agreement. While the political declaration has been agreed with the EU, it is not legally binding. Given the EU principle of the indivisibility of the four freedoms and the problem of the border in Ireland, Labour’s demands would likely produce a future relationship close to the Norway+ model, which the EU have said they would be happy with.

If the Withdrawal Agreement is ever passed then there is inevitable uncertainty over the eventual future relationship whatever kind of political declaration, or none, is approved, not least because of a possible change of leadership in the UK during negotiations.

Since the Withdrawal Agreement is the only legally binding part of May’s deal it is the bit that matters most. Some would say it is the only bit that really matters. I think that would be broadly true for the EU27, but there are a lot of important politics involved in the political declaration for the UK. Since the nature of any political declaration passed along with the Withdrawal Agreement might really shape the future relationship, for political if not legal reasons, it does matter what is in the political declaration.

However, it is not necessary for the Commons to approve any political declaration for the UK and EU to agree and ratify the Withdrawal Agreement as an international treaty and so for the UK to leave the EU with a deal. Approval of the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) alone is therefore an option.

What are the prospects of this?

At first glance they should be high. Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn could acknowledge that the Withdrawal Agreement is compatible with both their visions for the future relationship between the EU and the UK. That could be a basis for an agreement to postpone the decision on the political declaration until after the Withdrawal Agreement has been passed and the UK has left the EU.

Simples?

Not quite. Labour’s demands of 6thFebruary were deemed politically unacceptable for Theresa May by many commentators at the time. As Stephen Bush noted, both leaders were worried about splits. There has since been splits with the creation of The Independent Group, but things could get worse for the two main parties. It would not be easy for either side to compromise.

A key political question is which side would benefit most if a compromise did happen. Theresa May could frame the passage of the WA as a victory for the core element of her deal and say that a Conservative government will proceed to negotiate a future relationship as close as possible to the one in the political declaration. Labour would be left arguing that they had saved the UK from a no-deal Brexit. May would be the winner.

The EU could help Labour out here by signalling again, and more clearly, that they are amenable to Labour’s vision. But that still doesn’t feel like it would be enough for Labour, since the Conservatives might be able to hold on to power until the scheduled general election of 2022, and might have concluded a future relationship deal by then.

The government could make passing the WA alone more palatable for Labour, either with something similar to Lisa Nandy and Gareth Snell’s ideaof given parliament power over the future relationship negotiation, or by offering a general election. I imagine that the former is not sufficiently attractive to Corbyn’s team, but the latter would be.

I think if Theresa May offered a general election in exchange for support for the WA alone, at this stage Corbyn would take it, primarily for the opportunity to win power and because this would be an acceptable political solution given his own preferences and the pressures he is under from various quarters.

Promising a general election in return for the WA alone is risky for Theresa May and the Conservative party. On the one hand the Tories could expect a poll boost from delivering Brexit and the election could give May another mandate around. On the other hand, many in the party do not want May to carry on and they might might lose the election, handing power to Labour.

It appears at the moment that May cannot pass her deal next week without making any major concessions to some group of MPs in the UK, and I assume she ultimately does not want to proceed with a no-deal Brexit. So a suspect the key question is whether May would prefer promise a general election in order to pass the WA alone, or, as I’ve suggested before, offer a referendum on her deal.

One way WA-alone might emerge without an agreement between May and Corbyn is if parliament takes a series of indicative votes. I find it hard to imagine both main parties allowing un-whipped indicative votes, but maybe there’s a majority for them. If back benchers do “take back control” it will likely be mainly the opposition taking control with help from Tory Remainer MPs. Once parliament decides to have indicative votes Labour might push for Norway+ rather than the WA alone. Without clear leadership for WA-alone, Norway+ would be more likely to win, and they might get a majority if enough Tories support it. But perhaps fewer Tories would be needed for a 2ndreferendum, since the SNP and the smaller opposition parties would support that but not any kind of Brexit. Which of Norway+ of 2ndreferendum emerges, if either, from indicative votes depends on how many Labour MPs are in favour of Norway+ but against a 2ndreferendum compared with how many feel the opposite. How that balances out depends on what the Labour leadership signals, if anything, which in turn might affect the willingness of Conservative MPs to support the different options.

It could be that enough Labour and Tory backbenchers are sufficiently fed up with the leaderships of their parties that they both coalesce on WA-alone. But that still involves resolving a big coordination problem in a short period of time. Ultimately there is a good chance that indicative votes do not produce a clear conclusion.

Given that uncertainty, a key question for Tory Remainer backbenchers is whether, if they are tempted to sell out May’s government when they had previously been loyal, should it be in favour of uncertain indicative votes that Labour might try to control, or for something clearer like the Kyle-Wilson amendment on a second referendum, or something else specific. I presume that most of them think that Remain would be a better policy choice for the UK than Norway+, but the politics of getting to Norway+ could be much less painful. Many of them do not want to be compelled to campaign for May’s deal in a referendum. On that basis they might well take their chances with indicative votes. But as I said before, if May takes the initiative and pivots to another referendum then many of her MPs are likely to follow.

So the question comes back to Theresa May, still assuming that her deal will not pass as it stands and that she primarily wants to avoid no-deal. Does she want to run the risk of backbench led indicative votes that would undermine government authority and might well endorse Norway+, or does she want to keep the initiative and choose between a referendum on her deal or the Withdrawal Agreement and a subsequent general election.

Despite having previously thought she would go for a referendum I now think it is more likely she would be willing to offer a general election in exchange for support for the Withdrawal Agreement.

Both risk splitting the Conservative party. The referendum would probably lead to Remain, and might lead to a general election anyway, but it would give her a decent chance of getting her deal in full and perhaps staying in power for a little while longer. WA-alone would probably lead to a Labour government, but she would have delivered on Brexit under terms that she is happy with. A period of opposition might be helpful for the Tories. If Labour are in charge of negotiating the future relationship the Tories could end up uniting in condemnation of Labour giving up control over immigration, and/or allowing further divergence between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, as the implications of Norway+ are realised.

I can imagine many cabinet ministers would be unhappy with May trading a general election for the Withdrawal Agreement, particularly the future leadership contenders. But it is not clear to me that they could stop her. They could resign, but she could probably keep the show on the road long enough to pass the Withdrawal Agreement. After that an unstable cabinet only increases the chances of a general election without increasing the chances of winning it. During the election they would have a strong incentive to rally round the leader.

If there is a general election off the back of passing the Withdrawal Agreement it might look as though the rumours from 3rdFebruary were remarkably prescient. But the justification given then for a general election was based on a Conservative party poll lead. That is very different from the argument here, and the Tory poll lead has not been stable since February, and it could well change dramatically, as it did in 2017.

This blog does mean I’ve changed my mind about what I think is the most likely outcome. This is mainly because of thinking more about an option I had neglected before. Sorry if someone else has developed these arguments before and I didn’t spot it. There is probably some other potentially important development that I haven’t anticipated, which is another reason for thinking that the outcome is highly uncertain. It is also another reason why I should stop trying to figure out what will happen.

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