Brexit and UK Elections
Amb D P Srivastava, Distinguished Fellow, VIF

The Brexit debate has spilled over from Parliament to vote in elections. British Prime Minister Johnson suffered an initial set-back when Parliament voted Letwin Amendment on 19th October to delay Brexit deal by a vote of 322 to 306 until after it has gone through the ‘Withdrawal Agreement Bill’. This a detailed piece of legislation for bringing the international treaty into domestic law. He recovered ground to score a convincing win on Tuesday, 22nd October by a vote of 329 to 299.

The victory came too late; Parliament had already decided to postpone the decision. This forced PM’s hands to seek an extension of 31st October dead-line for Brexit. This was embarrassing as the Prime Minister had earlier declared that he will not do so. However, Parliament’s decision left him with no choice, though the communication sent to EU was unsigned. The EU has now agreed to an extension till January 2020. The change in the outcome of Parliamentary votes between 19th October and 22nd October could be construed in a number of ways. It suggests that the Brexit sentiment is stronger than support for UK to remain in the EU. But Parliament is not prepared for a ‘no-deal’ Brexit, which Prime Minister Johnson was threatening to accomplish.

Prime Minister Johnson in the meantime has pushed for early elections by December. He hopes the election will return a larger Brexit majority and help him clinch his deal. His opponents within the conservative ranks believe that this is an attempt not only to change the balance between Government and Opposition benches, but also within his own party. Brexit debate has split both the major parties. A number of Labour Party Members of Parliament have voted in support of Brexit.

The Labour Party has not come out with a clear-cut position. They are not in support of ‘no deal Brexit’. Equally, they sense that there is not enough support for a second Referendum. The ambivalence did not matter as long as the debate was confined to the Parliament. However, ambiguity will not win votes in an election at a time when opinion is highly polarized. Many of the workers supporting the Labour are in favour of Brexit. Corbyn, the Labour leader had initially announced that he does not support calling for elections. He changed his position once EU had given extension. Mr. Corbyn announced that he could now support early elections, as extension of the dead-line by EU would mean that there will be no Brexit without a deal.

Smaller parties are also divided on the issue of Brexit and early elections. SNP (Scottish National Party) and Liberals are supporting early elections for exactly the opposite reason Prime Minister is doing it. They do not want Brexit. They believe that early elections will bring a Parliament more determined to prevent a Brexit. Both cannot be right.

SNP and Liberals are supporting lowering of the voting threshold to allow youth of 17 years to vote. They have also supported extending the franchise to EU nationals staying in UK. The idea is to expand the base of support for the ‘Remainer’ camp. Younger people tend to be more Europhile. PM Johnson and the Conservatives are opposed to it. They are perhaps counting on a ground-swell of support for remaining in EU, as witnessed in a mammoth public rally opposing Brexit held last week. PM Johnson feels that delay will lead to migration of the constituency supporting Brexit to Farage’s group, which scored impressive win in European Parliament elections in May last.

The essential difference between Brexit deal negotiated by Mrs. May and Prime Minister Boris Johnson is on the issue of ‘Back-stop’. This arrangement to prevent hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic was based on Customs Union between UK and EU. This would have preserved the Good Friday Agreement, but kept UK permanently tied to EU. Brexiteers saw this as a ‘trap’. It would have pre-empted UK from charging lower taxes to attract trade and investment. Mr. Johnson’s Brexit deal has moved the customs border to the sea separating Ireland from UK. This saves the Good Friday Agreement, but would result in two customs jurisdictions within UK.

The change in Brexit deal cost Mr. Johnson support of DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) on which his government depends for survival. DUP has 10 MPs and is strongly opposed to any Brexit deal which weakens Northern Ireland’s bonds with UK. The problem had been finessed by the deal negotiated by Theresa May Government.

Though EU has agreed to UK’s request for extension under article 50 procedure till January, repeated postponement creates uncertainty. EU has to decide on the next budgetary cycle for 2021-2027. In the event of Brexit being agreed, European Parliament seats as well as Qualitative Majority Vote (QMV) formula will have to be revised. The last refers to voting share allotted to different member states, and involved rancorous debate last time.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s decision to go for elections is a high stake gamble. It could end up like Mrs. May’s decision in 2017 to call for snap election in the hope of improving Conservative majority. She lost it. Did he have other options? He could have waited for Parliament to complete scrutiny of “Withdrawal Agreement Bill’. The fear in 10 Downing Street was that this would have led to numerous amendments, necessitating further extension and loss of credibility for UK vis-à-vis its EU partners. There could also be the calculation that there is tremendous support in the general public for Brexit, as brought out by the results of European Parliament election where Farage’s Brexit party polled highest number of votes.

For India, both EU and UK are important. Uncertainty in one of our largest trading partner does not help us, especially at a time when our exports are stagnant. But India-EU and India-UK relations go beyond trade and investment. We have historical ties both at EU and national level with EU member states, which will endure beyond the current phase.

(Author is a former Ambassador and has served in Brussels)

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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