By Amber Boothe and Tasneem Ghazi
30 November 2018
The Shock of a Finalised Deal
On the 14th November, in a moment of triumphant relief, Prime Minister Theresa May announced that the cabinet and the European Council had finally agreed to a ‘realistic Brexit Deal’. In her somber and resolute speech, May emphasised the primacy of such a deal to Britain’s national interests. Whilst this deal is dense and lengthy (some 585 pages), it may have been a victory for May — had it not been undermined by fellow Tories, beginning with her former ally, ex-Brexit secretary Dominic Raab. Raab’s damning statement following his resignation painted the deal as a pro-European attempt at appeasement. Likewise, rumour has it that Eurosceptic Conservative rebellion is amassing its ranks, as five cabinet colleagues, including Michael Gove and Andrea Leadsom, announced their commitment to changing the Prime Minister’s mind. Yet, it is worth considering the implications of this long-sought agreement, for inter-party strife may butcher Britain’s last chance before a ‘No-Deal’.
A Reality Check on Britain’s Bargaining Power
Following the deal’s vilification by Brexiteers, German Chancellor Angela Merkel steadfastly announced Britain will not receive a better — or even another — deal from the European Council. This damning fact of the matter ought to ground the British public’s expectations. For the surge of nationalism — from both the left and right — in the UK is to blame for the 2016 referendum’s outcome. Brexit is and has always been a non-partisan matter of extremes. When examining this deal then, one must consider not just its contents; but the implications of its failure; as well as Labour’s divided state and, crucially, Jeremy Corbyn’s stringent position of Pro-leave and Anti-People’s vote.
The Terms of the Brexit Agreement
The deal’s two major weaknesses are, first, that the British taxpayer must pay a ‘divorce’ fee, estimated to be between £35-39 billion to cover existing financial obligations; and second, that Britain must abide by the majority of EU law during the transition period whereby both parties hope to secure a trade deal.
The agreement is, however, not without merit. First, the skillful concessions made in Protocol 1 pertaining to the Northern Irish backstop is a minor victory. The very phrasing of the article solves the issue of a ‘hard border’, while respecting the integrity of the Good Friday agreement and the Irish Republic’s sovereignty.
The deal also grants Britain the flexibility and time (until 2020) to negotiate a separate trade deal with the European Union. Under this arrangement, Britain is granted free trade cooperation with the EU on goods, as well as a zero tariffs quota and the ability to strike other trade deals with other British partners. Short of remaining within the single market and the ‘Norway option, (rejected by Brexiteers), this is the best alternative Britain has.
Last— but most importantly for Brexiteers — the deal ends Britain’s adherence to the European system of ‘Free Movement’ and long-vilified system of immigration. Appeasing the primary complaint of those who voted ‘Leave’, Britain may then transition to another, individual highly specialised, skill-based immigration system. In short, May’s Brexit deal is a flexible trade arrangement that allows Britain to pay its way through Brexit and abandon its most contentious commitment to the EU: Freedom of Movement. Put simply, it will deliver what many Brexiteers rallied for without wrecking a future relationship with the EU.
Yet, even though this draft agreement was unilaterally approved by EU27 as swiftly as 25th November, its future cannot be predicted without the arithmetic of parliamentary votes.
The Turbulent Passage of the Deal
The turning point now is the deal’s passage through parliament. Until it receives a simple majority, it is neither legally nor politically binding. Whether or not May will be able to obtain the necessary votes is uncertain. To secure Parliamentary backing, May needs 320 votes (discounting Sein Fein’s abstentionists, the Speaker and his deputies). Losing the Conservative Parliamentary majority in 2017 left May short of her majority. But in theory, the ‘confidence and supply’ deal with the Democratic Unionist Party should give her a 13-vote lead.
Nevertheless, recent events tell another story. In light of Arlene Foster’s fiery denunciation of the agreement and the DUP’s abstention from voting on the budget, many argue that the DUP will revolt. But this assumption greatly overstates the DUP’s autonomy. The DUP has entered into billion-pound investment with the Conservatives that has afforded them more power than ever before. Bearing this in mind, it would be unlikely for the DUP to risk their future by standing against May’s proposal; thus, an abstention on their part is (realistically) the worst case possible.
These calculations indicate May might have a theoretical majority. But, unfortunately for the Prime Minister, strife within the Tory party risks crippling her deal. Realistically, around 80 hardline Tory Brexiteer are liable to vote against the party line. Add this figure to the eight or so Remainers in her party, May could have a deficit of nearly 90 votes. According to this, one could easily presume this deal shall not make it through Parliament.
However, another caveat remains forgotten: votes in the Conservative camp are half the story.
Labour: A Crippled Camp
The focus has been on whether May can obtain enough votes, and most calculations assume that the opposition will be united against the deal. In reality though, Labour’s poor choice of leader has left the party divided and ineffectual. Whilst some hope that calling a general election will be the opportunity Labour needs to take control, deep cracks exist within the party. ‘We can’t stop Brexit,’ said Corbyn. ‘We can stop Brexit,’ countered Sir Keir Starmer, the party’s Brexit spokesman. On one hand, polls suggest that 49 percent of the country are in favour of a public vote, but Corbyn maintains that a second referendum is ‘not an option for today’. Ironically, Corbyn’s refusal to back a People’s Vote has undermined Starmer’s meaningful efforts to ensure that ‘we will vote down a blind Brexit‘. This ongoing inter-party strife prevents Labour from unifying into a force to be reckoned with.
Considering the conflict within the opposition, one may wonder how Corbyn will ensure that abstentions in the Labour party don’t make up the votes Mays lacking. One cannot and must not forget that if Labour were to come into power (unless there is a change in leadership), reversing Brexit would not be an option. Beyond Corbyn’s Euroscepticism, many Labour Remainers represent constituencies that voted Leave and would be unlikely to vote against a deal.
A recent Opinium poll found that Leave voters are defecting from the Conservative party, evidenced by a drop-in points by 10 to 49 percent of the proportion of Leavers backing the Tories. Meanwhile, Labour has seen a 4-point increase to 24 percent. A further 22 percent of Labour supporters felt the party should back the deal. This tension between the will of the people and the widespread hostility towards May’s deal crucially incentivises neutrality on the part of Labour MPs. As diverging opinions fracture the political landscape, it is in their best interest not to pick a side. So widespread abstentions could be a reality that would benefit the Government.
Predicting the Deal’s Parliamentary Passage
Doing the arithmetic demonstrates that this agreement might survive, albeit narrowly. The question then ought to be why this agreement should survive. It is hardly an ‘easy Brexit’. Although it negates Britain’s unpopular obligation to ‘free movement’, it is inevitably shaped by the EU’s interests, particularly because of Britain’s lack of bargaining power. The European Council will not, for its own sake, give Britain another deal. If it did, Britain would be setting a precedent for rising right-wing parties in Europe to painlessly withdraw their membership of the European Union. 
Thus, a ‘No-Deal’ is Britain’s most likely alternative. Labour, under Corbyn, has refused otherwise. While a second referendum with the outcome of ‘Remain’, would undoubtedly be a better option for Britain, the likelihood of this is very uncertain. This outcome of another ‘People’s Vote’ is the hope of brilliant optimists like Keir Starmer, alongside a string of former prime ministers and prominent politicians, including Brown, Blair, Clegg, Cable, Major, McDonnel, Hague and Heseltine.
As their statements imply, the support a second referendum commands is rooted in the realisation that by leaving the EU in the current socio-economic climate, Britain stands to lose more sovereignty than ever before. Likewise, optimists emphasise that the Prime Minister did not rule out reversing Brexit in her speech. But, realistically, until a united front of prominent politicians working together against Brexit appears, another referendum is both constitutionally dubious and uncharted territory.
To this Deal or to ‘No-Deal’?
As it stands, Britain’s position is best realised by considering the implications of a ‘No-Deal’. An economic catastrophe for Britain is the first ailment, and tellingly, the pound has already begun to drop. Exacerbating matters, a recent UN report revealed an appallingly rife level of poverty and homelessness across the United Kingdom. With the current disastrous cuts on welfare, the decapitated NHS and almost non-existent legal aid, Britain will suffer further. Wages will inevitably drop, and taxes will increase. Reports have shown that a ‘No-Deal’ would cost young people up to 3,000 pounds per year. Such a dire state of economic affairs will undoubtedly compel Britain to look for cooperation and aid abroad.
Foreign policy-wise, a vacuum must be filled. Britain will be left with no choice but to rely upon less dependable foreign partners, many of whom are notorious for blatantly disregarding human rights, such as Saudi Arabia. By giving in to such an arrangement, Britain would abandon European allies and re-align British interest with those who, like Saudi Arabia, trample on dearly-held national values: democracy, freedom of speech, and human rights.
In sum, a ‘No-Deal’ does not just entail betraying steadfast European allies with shared values; it shall prolong the age of austerity, poverty, and an ailing economy, all of which are painful consequences that Britain should not endure. Looking closely at May’s deal demonstrates that it is a compromise protecting the EU’s interests (as well as an Anglo-European relationship) while delivering the promise of Brexiteers. So, if one does not support resurrecting Britain’s membership of the EU — and the gamble of another referendum — one should hope that this agreement survives. The fact of the matter is that this deal is the uncomfortable medicine prescribed to Britain by Europe to cure a bitter bout of nationalism. Only now can we genuinely see the dark irony behind the Brexiteer mantra of ‘restoring sovereignty’, for as Britain leaves the EU, we stand on the brink of losing more sovereignty than ever before.
Amber Boothe and Tasneem Ghazi are fourth year students reading Politics, Philosophy and Law (joint honours LLB) at King’s College London. They serve as Communications Director and Manager Editor (respectively) of the Dickson Poon School of Law’s postgraduate Law Journal: The King’s Student Law Review. Amber and Tasneem are also passionately involved in a number of public law projects. Their research specialises in UK constitutional law and legal theory.
The authors would also like to thank Dr. Elin Weston for her advice.
Image source: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/jeremy-corbyn-interview-labour-momentum-2022-general-election-leader-theresa-amy-dup-local-council-a8124766.html