(Title Image: Sky News)
Brexit is probably the single biggest issue at the forthcoming election (understatement) – though there are other equally important issues worthy of focus (which I’ll look at in a separate piece). With this election likely to determine the outcome of Brexit one way or another, there are several ways it can go.
Deal or No Deal?
There’s a Brexit deal on the table and it’s cleared the first hurdle in the UK Parliament.
The more hardline Brexiteer MPs got what they wanted with their loathed indefinite “Backstop” gone, having been replaced with a rolling/renewable agreement subject to the approval of the Northern Irish Assembly.
It looks like that’s enough to placate some Brexit-supporting MPs and should the Conservatives secure a decent majority in December, it’s likely the deal will pass and Brexit will happen on schedule at the end of January 2020.
There’s always the risk of a change of heart and for some even that’s not enough. Some Brexiteer MPs, looking over their shoulders at any potential success by The Brexit Party, may still want to leave the EU without a deal and only supported a deal before the election was called because they saw it as the last opportunity to “get Brexit done”; they’ll try and win the long war at a later date.
So if there’s a smaller Conservative majority or another minority government – caused by a large vote for the Brexit Party or Labour gains – Hard Brexit Tory MPs and others like the DUP may use that levereage to press again for a No Deal or a further renegotiation. Depending on the make-up of the opposition, we could end up going through the whole circus over and over again, for years and years after the UK has actually left the EU because it “wasn’t a proper Brexit”.
“People’s Vote” & Stopping Brexit Altogether
Then there’s the opposite view – that Brexit should either be put back to the electorate in a second referendum or unilaterally reversed altogether.
The Lib Dem position is quite clear on this: STOP!….BREXIT!
Plaid Cymru, the SNP and the Greens seem to lean more towards a second referendum and would officially campaign for Remain, but I’m willing to bet if they were in the position to do so they would STOP!….BREXIT! as well.
While pro-Brexit political forces only face a choice between Deal or No Deal, there are so many competing interests at work on the Remain side of the campaign: Welsh and Scottish nationalists, pro-(European) federalists, open borders campaigners, Blairites/New Labour, Tory “wets“, those who just want a second referendum and those who want to unilaterally revoke Article 50 and stop the process altogether.
I mean, at least you know where you stand with “The Brexit Party Ltd”. Infighting within the “official” second referendum campaign group hasn’t helped matters either.
The situation is even more complicated by Labour’s position of being well and truly on the fence.
The Welsh Government favours a position similar to that of Plaid Cymru (though there’s disagreement over some aspects of the Welsh Government’s new Remain & Reform position), but at a UK level, there seems to be a view that some form of Brexit is doable, so renegotiation and a second referendum is preferred.
The only thing Labour have done is rule out leaving the EU without a deal – so Labour can’t be described as “a Remain party” regardless of what individual politicians and activists views may be.
On the surface, this sounds like a happy medium – Brexit is delivered with the option of stopping it with the people’s consent. It’s a position Labour has been forced to take because of the large numbers of Labour-held constituencies which voted Leave in 2016 and could well have their heads turned by The Brexit Party (or even the Tories).
Brexit is largely a right-wing project focused on things like sovereignty and immigration, but there are left-wing arguments for it as well (known as “Lexit”). Both the left-wing of Labour and (the now emphatically pro-Remain) Plaid Cymru were opposed to EU (then called EC) membership in the 1970s because it was seen as a free-market Trojan horse, while even today some EU rules governing issues like state aid are at odds with traditional left-wing views on government intervention in the economy and nationalisation.
It wasn’t until the 1980s and 1990s when the EU started to pass measures to protect workers rights and alike that Labour shifted their policy – it’s just a shame the face of this was the Kinnocks, Tony Blair and Peter Mandleson.
The enemy of my enemy….
The only formal electoral pact announced so far is Unite to Remain involving Plaid Cymru, the EnglandandWales Greens and the Liberal Democrats. At time of posting, they’ve agreed to only put up a single candidate between them in 60 seats across England and Wales – though none in Scotland, where the Lib Dems are targeting SNP seats and vociferously oppose Scottish independence (“fraternal” relations with the SNP aside, Plaid should be able to act autonomously and like it or not their position is much weaker in Wales compared to the SNP in Scotland).
Under first-past-the-post, you can win a seat with as little as 30-35% of the votes cast, so the fewer candidates there are, the better the chances of winning a seat or boosting vote share. Ultimately, this isn’t a stitch-up but a grown-up attempt by parties to put their differences aside to use first-past-the-post against itself and, indirectly, make an argument for electoral reform.
To be blunt, it’ll also save all the parties money. Plaid and the Lib Dems lost (by my count) 51 Welsh deposits combined in 2017, worth a total of £25,500.
The pact saw a trial run at the Brecon & Radnorshire by-election in August, where Plaid and the Greens decision to stand aside (based on their usual vote share) effectively won the seat for the Lib Dems.
Maybe it’ll be enough to ensure Plaid and the Lib Dems retain Arfon and Brecon & Radnorshire respectively (though the latter will be a notional gain), and it could help Plaid and the Lib Dems chances in Ynys Môn and Montgomeryshire (again respectively).
Other than that though, the agreement seems rather uneven and doesn’t look set to benefit any of the parties to any great extent – it just eliminates a smaller competitor to boost vote share. There’s also no guarantee that the designated Unite to Remain candidate will receive all of the support of the two parties stepping aside – as is already the case in Pontypridd.
If this was about electing as many Remain MPs as possible, then there’s no need to stand against out-and-out Remainer Labour MPs whose views differ with that of the official view of the party (Cardiff North, Cardiff Central, Bridgend etc.).
There are also some seats where, despite a pact being essential for a Unite to Remain candidate to win or retain a seat, a pact is conspicuously absent (Ceredigion – which should’ve been a red line for Plaid Cymru – plus possibly Neath, Cardiff West, Blaenau Gwent, Newport West [for the Greens Amelia Womack]).
Due to historically low levels of support, in seats where only the Greens are standing it could indirectly lead to Labour taking or retaining seats – Vale of Glamorgan being an obvious example.
Given the potential for the Brexit Party to take 15+% of the vote in some seats from both Labour and the Tories, it’s arguably more crucial for the Conservatives to enter into an electoral pact – but that will come at a price of a “No Deal Brexit”, which it seems is something Boris Johnson doesn’t (at least publicly) want to pursue with a deal still on the table.
It seems like Nigel Farage has blinked first and the Brexit Party won’t be putting up candidates in seats the Tories won in 2017 (317 in total) – including 8 in Wales. Instead, they’re going to target Labour Leave voters who might not consider voting Tory for historical and cultural reasons, but might instead back the Brexit Party.
However, a Tory victory is dependent on them winning a healthy number of these very same Leave-voting Labour seats in the north of England and “British Wales” (M4 corridor, north-east).
So we could well end up with Unite to Remain parties taking seats off each other or costing each other seats despite a formal electoral pact, while the Brexit Party prolongs Brexit by preventing the Tories from winning a clear majority.