A feeling of anti-Brexit momentum is in the air. Perhaps it’s just the silly season that accounts for it and such ideas will seem quaint come the autumn; perhaps the tide really is turning against the UK leaving the European Union. Yet for all of the James Chapman hits Twitter inspired hope stirring Remainers the truth is, Brexit still looks pretty healthy as an immediate destination (where that leads us and what happens after we get there in terms of public opinion is another matter). Here’s why: the politics of Brexit stack up. For now at least.
One, we haven’t seen any sort of real turnaround in public opinion on Brexit. Yes, they don’t like how the government is handling it (39% approval versus 61% disapproval) – but that is very different to the public wanting to see Brexit abandoned. Two – and this is actually a much bigger point – the leadership of the two largest parties in the House of Commons, with 578 out of 650 seats, is determined to see Brexit through. Unless something changes to that equation, I don’t see how remaining in the EU somehow is even a remote possibility.
Yes, anti-Brexit Labour and Tory MPs can join forces and try and vote together on things they agree on. But that will never, ever have the cohesion of an actual party – never. Look at the Chuka Umunna amendment around single market membership to the Queen’s Speech – no Tory MP would touch it. And I understand why, of course: it wasn’t a good time to break ranks, the Conservative Party needed to come together after the general election result, I could go on here. The thing is, it is never a great time to break ranks with your party – that’s one of the built-in features of political parties in the first place. They demand loyalty and communitarian action. Pro-EU MPs saying they will defy the whips of the parties which hold almost 90% of all the seats in the lower house enough to make derailing Brexit a possibility is a fantasy.
Some Remainers say that when the public mood turns against Brexit, the main parties will turn against it as well. Let’s say the view of Brexit amongst the electorate were to change, drastically. You would still have a Conservative Party that is ideologically wedded to the idea of leaving the EU – and a Labour leadership that is just as ideologically committed to the concept as well. Corbyn isn’t going along with Brexit because of some clever political calculation – he really believes in it, and has done for decades. Maybe enough political pressure gets applied to him that he drops it (and he has done this plenty of times previously on all sorts of issues) but it would have to be a massive sea change before I think he’d come close to considering it.
No, anti-Brexit Labour and Tory MPs would have to split off and start SDP Mark 2 to have any hope of stopping Brexit. And it is very hard to see that happening. Remainers, by all means, continue to rally – I just wouldn’t get your hopes up about halting Brexit.