As Theresa May gets closer to putting her Brexit deal before parliament, we discuss the chances of success. Was this really the best deal available? What will MPs be weighing up when they get their chance to vote on it? Have its opponents missed their chance? Plus we try to make sense of the choices facing the DUP and we consider the larger question of what this version of Brexit would mean for the future of the Union. With Kenneth Armstrong, author of Brexit Time, Helen Thompson and Chris Bickerton.
DAVID: Hello – my name is David Runciman, and this is Talking Politics. This time last week we weren't entirely sure if Theresa May would still be Prime Minister when we recorded today's episode. Well she is, and she's going to spend the next two days trying to finalize the deal that will go before the House of Commons. And we are going to weigh up the proposal.
We have with us today Helen Thompson, professor of political economy, Chris Bickerton, reader in European politics, and it's a pleasure to welcome Kenneth Armstrong who is professor of European law and he's also the author of a book called Brexit Time: Leaving the EU— it's got the brave subtitle—Why, How and When. All good questions. I'm not sure we still know the answer to any. It doesn't have ‘whether,’ which we might get on to, ‘who’ is going to do the deed—We could keep going. We're probably going to focus on, I guess, the ‘How.’ One way to frame the politics of this is it's an argument about how broad the spectrum of possibility was or is in securing this stage of the deal, the withdrawal agreement. If you're Theresa May, or maybe Ollie Robbins who negotiated it, I think you effectively want to say that the range of the possible is this. This is the best deal and once we arrived at this we had ruled out all the other possibilities. But the critics of course are trying to say that there are other ways to go, other paths we could go down. And one of the questions is ‘When?’ When did we miss the path? Kenneth, what's your sense of… with what we have now… and she's going off to Europe today to try and fiddle around the edges. We're hearing things from Europe that there are people who want to push back in other ways. But what's your sense of how broad the spectrum of possibility was or is. How many other deals were there out there other than this one?
KENNETH: I think it’s worth bearing in mind that we have had a draft of the withdrawal agreement since March and it's been a fairly developed draft of that. The last but has really just been around the Northern Ireland backstop and working out what the economic arrangements for the future are going to be. So really most of the negotiations over the summer and into the autumn have been about that. And I think there's been a bit of a realization at some point that instead of trying to work out what the backstop would be and then hoping they'd get around to working on what the future would look like, I think they've done a lot more about working on what the future would look like and then realising that that could work as a kind of version of the backstop. It’s always going to be hard to try to negotiate two different things, a backstop and a future relationship. So I think that's kind of where they got to.
DAVID: So in a way you’re saying there's actually more in this than meets the eye because of course the other thing that Theresa May is going to want to try and say to get this through the Commons is that there is still a whole range of possible futures out there, this is just the first stage in a process, back me on this and we'll have another go. But you're saying that actually the future has been quite curtailed by what's in this.
KENNETH: I think if you read both the provisions in the backstop protocol and you read the outline of the political declaration there is a very close interplay between the two. The outline of a political declaration talks about building upon the single customs territory that is in the backstop. So it is clear to me… at least I think that there is quite a close connection between those two things. And in that sense the rest of the stuff is gonna be on what else to put into future agreement.
DAVID: Chris what's your sense of the spectrum of possibility here? Do you think… are there other deals out there in the mist that we missed or is this it?
CHRIS: I think when Theresa May says, ‘This is basically it, this is as good as it can be.” I think she's right. I don’t think it's credible to say that a different government or a different prime minister could go back to Brussels and renegotiate something if the basic conditions for the negotiations remain the same in terms of timing, in terms of what the government thinks are its red line, what the EU thinks are its redlines. This is what we have
DAVID: And when were those conditions set? So when did we get on this path. If this path leads here, when could we have gone a different path?
CHRIS: Well I think there are different readings about what's the sort of centerpiece for this negotiation from the government's perspective. I was hearing somebody saying that the government always thought that the freedom of movement was the most important thing and everything is based around moving away from that. I don't think so. I think the only way to make sense of the current agreement we have is actually Northern Ireland. That seems to me to be front and center and all the logic flows from it. What Kenneth was saying about the continuity between the withdrawal agreement and the future relations, that's less obvious to me. I think it may be that behind the scenes there is a kind of plan or a kind of plot, which is that the way things are set up now, given the problems around Northern Ireland, basically the UK as a whole remains very, very closely aligned to the European Union, much more so than you'd assume with Brexit. So this is why people accuse this deal of being Brexit in name only. Now if that then becomes the basis for the future relationship post-Brexit then I think we have a big problem. The assumption—and this is certainly the way it’s been presented by the government and I take them at their word on this—is that there a transitional period or an implementation period into something different. If the current withdrawal arrangements and the arrangement around the backstop becomes the basis for a permanent relationship with the EU, I don’t think that can work. [6:05]
DAVID: I’ll bring Helen in in a second but can you just say why do you think that what we have here is so clearly shaping this future relationship, that the backstop is actually the shape of the future?
KENNETH: I think because what seems to me is that there are now two policy choices, one is we put everything in transition, where actually everything would stay the same for whatever period it would be.
But it's clear that the idea of the backstop is also a policy choice. It could be we won't go into transition but we will trigger the backstop. Why do that unless you thought that actually was the bridge to the future. The problem with the transitional arrangement is it's a bridge to nowhere. It just tells you everything's going to stay the same. It doesn't tell you how different the future would look once this new arrangement comes into place.
DAVID: And a backstop version of the future, is that in your mind Brexit in name only? How significantly different is it from…
KENNETH: It's clearly much narrower because it is only really focused on the trade and goods staff. So it is about changing the discipline, the discipline of EU membership would change at that point.
DAVID: Helen, if you look at the critics of this deal, so some of them, say the hardline Brexiteers, almost agree with Theresa May or Ollie Robbins and say, ‘Yeah, this is the only deal, you’ve given whatever path we’ve got on maybe when we triggered Article 50. And if this is the only deal then we have to have no deal.’ And then there are the people, the five in the Cabinet, we’re told—that’s another plot that seems to have gone nowhere—It’s the Andrea Leadsom or Michael Gove position which is, ‘No, we've still got lots of room to try and push for something better. Actually this isn't the only deal and we may be risking signing off too soon.’ Which one is a stronger political argument?
HELEN: I think the difficulty in people who think that the deal is Brexit name only and therefore should be rejected for that reason is, regardless of whether they are right or wrong about whether it's Brexit in name only, they are clearly taking a huge risk that Britain doesn't end up leaving the European Union because it seems pretty clear that Parliament is not going to allow a no deal to take place. So they have to choose between having what they think of as ‘Brexit in name only’ or No Brexit at all, or at least a pretty significant risk of there being no Brexit at all. So I think that this creates a strange political dynamic because they can keep winning, or appear to keep winning substantive arguments, and saying, ‘Look the backstop is such that it will keep us in the European Union effectively,’ or the thing that the hardline Brexiteers care most about, the Customs Union, in perpetuity. But whatever substantive shots they can win they haven't actually got an alternative. And because they haven't actually got an alternative in these political circumstances they end up risking complete political defeat.
DAVID: So no deal is not an alternative?
HELEN: I'm not saying that there's no circumstances in which it could happen. All I'm saying is that all the noise is out of Parliament suggests that Parliament will go… the majority in Parliament will go a long way to try to stop that from happening. And that is a risk that the Brexiteers—hardline Brexiteers, I should say —ave got to take on board in the position that they're pursuing. Is it worth winning the substance of ‘The backstop is too problematic for the future’ (and I'm not entirely clear that it is actually, but that's a separate question) if they're going to then be held responsible for not having any Brexit at all. And they may think that the future begins with no deal, and even if they were right, I'm pretty sure that that would collapse the amount of support there presently is for Brexit. There is no evidence whatsoever as far as I can see that British politics could withstand the economic problems that no deal would bring. Now that again isn't saying that it shouldn't be able to withstand them, it's just a judgment about the reality of where we are.
DAVID: So it does sound like… I mean I don’t know if we agree on this… but that there isn't that broader spectrum of possibility here, that actually, this is quite close—if we're not going to raise the ‘whether’ question and not do it at all—Once we're on that path, maybe there's some sort of tinkering around the edges, but this is kind of it. [10:09]
KENNETH: It’s hard to see if Parliament for example votes on the deal and votes against it, what renegotiation would take place in Brussels, what would that really look like? And I think you’re right. I mean in terms of what could be done, actually reopening negotiations is very difficult because, as I think we're already beginning to see, other member states may then pile in to say, well actually we were not happy with this, we want something.
DAVID: And we are seeing that, we're seeing it today. I mean the newspapers today have actually got more, now that this whole Rees-Mogg thing has blown over, there's actually more coverage of pushback from Europe than there is inside the Conservative Party.
HELEN: I think there could be scope on the political declaration. I think that withdrawal agreements are another matter. And I think actually the line that Kenneth picked up about the customs union, or the customs territory rather, of the backstop being the basis for the future could actually be something that there could be further discussion about because it's not clear to me that the EU as a whole is committed to the idea that it wants a permanent customs territory relationship with Britain. I mean I think it would actually cause it quite a lot of problems if it went down that road.
CHRIS: It was also unwilling to accept that initially. Its own version of the backstop was a very restrictive one which applied to Northern Ireland and it was only upon considerable pressure from the government, the UK government, that made it apply to the UK as a whole. I dont think thats a model for the EU to pursue in perpetuity on its own side either. The reason why is that it does the thing that's Chequers always promised to do, which the EU always seems to resist, is that it breaks up the single market. It has a different arrangement for trade and goods than it does with trade and services or the other sort of four freedoms. I’m surprised, to be honest, that this ever got through on the EU side but it seems to have done so on the presumption that this is a temporary arrangement. So I think going forward, when it starts to become a case of negotiating the future relationship after the withdrawal agreement has passed, I think there's quite a lot of scope for really deciding what is acceptable to both sides. My view is that this implementation period, this transition period is far too short to negotiate most of these issues. And so we are still going to come up against this problem of the ticking clock, the months passed by, it’s impossibly short to negotiate such an important agreement. And that's going to be the problem further down the line. But I think what we have at the moment is… and Helen’s quite right: The alternative to the withdrawal agreement is not so much no deal because I think that will never get there, it's the imminent prospect of no deal will be so pressing that it will push size to unite against the very idea of pursuing Brexit. And so this is the deal that's the alternative to that.
DAVID: And Kenneth, your book is called Brexit Time, your blog is called Brexit Time, and that is one question. Is the thing that has narrowed the spectrum of possibility time rather than broader political alliances?
KENNETH: Clearly the negotiation period has been so short and with the UK government taking such a long time to try and get to its own landing zone, or where it wanted to be, let alone to negotiate, that's been a factor. But on Chris's point about transition, yes, actually having a longer transition is probably necessary in order to allow for the actual negotiations to take place on the future relationship but the longer that the UK remains in transition the greater the accusation it really is a kind of zombie Brexit, where we have all the obligations of membership but without any political representation. And that's why parking the UK in the backstop is more helpful because actually you've got less of the obligations and the enforcement mechanisms become somewhat different. So there is a kind of political choice now to be made rather than it just being a residual, ‘Well if all else fails us is where we end up.’
DAVID: If it's a really long transition period it will extend beyond a change of government. I mean that's one of the questions here which is, at some point, someone else is going to be in charge. And could you do that, could you have a single period transition, especially given the current state of British politics? Changes of government from a May government, either, I mean presumably a harder Brexit Tory government, or a Corbyn government?
CHRIS: I don’t think that conservatives would want to go into a general election with the transitional arrangements still in place, or being still in this implementation phase. It will be quite hard for them to claim that they have done what they said they were going to do even though they're still in this interim position. The calendar is not just set by the negotiations with the EU, it's also that a UK government doing the negotiating would want to be out of that sort of place in time for fighting another general election. Trade negotiations with the European Union, you know, take a very very long time, they're very complex, and none of them have been achieved in this sort of time period. So I don’t see how that would really be possible. But there will be pressure on both sides to not let these negotiations go on forever. But it's a pretty tough ask.
HELEN: I mean the other thing that's going to change with time is the European Union itself. I mean the European Union, you know the Parliament elections coming up in May. That is going to make some political difference. There will be a new Commission. At a certain point that's going to make a difference. There will be elections in other European countries. Angela Merkel's going to go at some point. The European Union that Britain will be negotiating with about this trade agreement by, whenever 2020-21, could actually look really quite radically different than what this present one is. And that's why I think in terms of the future that there is actually considerable openness about where this could yet go. [15:28].
KENNETH: There's also one other really important thing to mention which is that even if the agreement gets approval, Parliament is going to have to legislate to bring it into legal effect domestically, and it's only likely to have three months or so. Given the European Communities Act in ‘72 took 10 months to get through Parliament, and that was to provide for our membership, a three month timetable for us to get legislation through Parliament with all the possibilities of problems there is incredibly tight and that will potentially push them to extend the period for us to leave.
DAVID: So let's do the parliamentary arithmetic because that's the real anomaly here, which is maybe we've semi-agreed that there isn't that much scope for alternative deals, and yet the one that we've got is the one that looks like it's really going to struggle to get past Parliament. A lot depends on how it's put to Parliament. There's talk of a free vote. I think that would presumably have to happen the second time around. I don’t think the first vote is going to be a free vote, whether it's take it or leave it with this deal, or whether options are put before Parliament. So there is a thought that if there was a free vote in Parliament and it was a choice between no deal Brexit, second referendum people's vote, whatever it’s called, and Theresa May’s deal, Theresa May’s deal probably wins. If you can split it three ways. If you split two ways it really struggles. I genuinely have no idea how this is going to go. How are we going to get from here, sort of the only deal on the table, to a successful vote in Parliament.
KENNETH: So I am going to stick my neck out on this. I think it will go through.
DAVID: First time?
KENNETH: I mean it depends how it's presented. But yes, could well be first time. The reason why…
DAVID: This is the vote in a few weeks, in the middle of December.
KENNETH: Yes, the reason why is I think, as things stand, the only representative of the result of the referendum is May's deal. Now you can argue about how many people wanted that and whether this is really the British people, or whatever you want, but the result of the referendum is associated with that deal. So you're putting Parliament in a position where it's being asked to assert its parliamentary sovereignty against what people will say is popular sovereignty and I just don’t think the MPs are willing to take the risk of voting down something which is inescapably associated with the outcome of that referendum, whatever you may think of the deal itself. And I think they are right not to want to do that.
DAVID: So that would be the principal calculation and then there’s the slightly more pragmatic calculation, which is, who’s going to get blamed if this goes down? And presumably part of what's motivating the May administration is to get parliamentarians to accept that they will be fingered for this if it goes wrong.
CHRIS: Yes that's a certain reading of it, but I think she wants to get it through.
DAVID: I’m sure she does.
CHRIS: And if it doesn’t get through, it’s not that there’s a manoeuvring to blame Parliament, it’s that the MPs will have stopped it from going through. The complicating factor is how does this fit with the party politics of it? Within the Labour Party there is a feeling that they can unite around rejecting this deal through very sort of misleading attempts to characterize it as not meeting their certain tests and requirements but it’s really just party politics, it’s the Labour Party’s interests here. Now how that fits in terms of the numbers, how many Labour MPs will dissent from that because they want to put their desire to see the deal go through above the short term calculations of their own party, and how that then fits with what will happen on the Conservative side—that’s where it becomes a very… I don’t know. I don’t know about how that will stack up on the day itself.
DAVID: Because, Helen, you’ve been doubtful that this would get through for a while.
HELEN: Well I’m actually… optimistic is not quite the right word but I think it’s got a better chance of going through than I thought it had a few weeks ago where I thought the chances were near nil. I’m not saying I think that they're high now but I think that there is some chance that it will. I wouldn’t put a figure on it. I think the reason why is is because I think the Conservatives, the hard Brexiteers and the European Research Group have demonstrated in the last 10 days or so that they have less support not just within the parliamentary party but within conservative associations than they thought they did. There may be a lot of people, Conservative members and indeed Conservative voters who would like a better Brexit than this. But also there seems to be considerable loyalty to Theresa May out there that seems to have taken aback, I think, some of the ERG members. So this isn't just now a question of voting this deal down, this is a question of voting this government led by Theresa May down. And
that adds another complication too. I think her position is in some sense immensely strengthened over the last few weeks. I think the real question as to whether it goes through or not then becomes, as Chris says, what the Labour Party do because, you know, essentially the Labour party have played games with Brexit from the beginning of this process to the end. They just haven't taken a serious position—for understandable electoral reasons if we just think in those terms. It's purely been tactical opposition to this. Now the reckoning is coming. They've got to decide whether they want to reject the lot of them, the outcome of a referendum that most of them voted for, having that referendum that most of them voted for, triggering Article 50, or at least didn't oppose triggering Article 50.
DAVID: And it was in their last manifesto.
HELEN: The moment of truth has arrived for them. They have to decide whether they're going to repudiate all that and basically join the stop Brexit brigade now. Some of them certainly will. But enough of them might not to allow these two things to pass.
KENNETH: I wonder what you think is the flipside of the lack of votes to bring Theresa May down, the fact that actually Conservative MPs have decided that actually they're going to put their energy into whether the agreement gets through or not. So they don't want to bring their leader down but they don't want this agreement. [21:15]
DAVID: I mean that was Rees-Mogg’s position yesterday, which is, ‘Don’t think this is over.’ It really didn’t work this weekend. Those MPs went back to their constituencies and were told by their constituencies, chairmen, chairwomen, don’t bring her down now. But if the first vote fails the politics changes dramatically.
KENNETH: But I think if what happens is those MPs do go back to their constituencies and what they are hearing is, ‘If its not this deal then we’re worried that we’re not going to get Brexit,’ then do they rally around the deal at that point? I think that’s the interesting question.
HELEN: I think the thing is they can't undo what they've done. You know they launched an attempted coup against her and it's failed and they will pay a political price for that now. Switching to Plan B doesn't change the fact they tried Plan A and failed. And they're a weaker force as a consequence of it I think.
CHRIS: But I think the thing that weakened them more than anything else… because you know bringing down the prime minister was a kind of a means to an end. There was a time in the sort of aftermath of Chequers where there was an expectation and a promise that they would provide their alternative to Chequers, and they didn't. They simply could not come up with a different plan. And I think for me that just really mortally wounded the ERG cause, that they were just seen as—and they are—they moan but they don’t have an alternative to what the prime minister has brought... will bring to the House of Commons and that I think is decisive. I mean nobody else does either. It’s not as if the Labour Party got a great alternative, you know, I don’t either. This is what what we have to consider. But they were the ones in the driver’s seat to come up with an alternative to her deal and they didn’t.
DAVID: so I want to come on a second to the DUP because that’s the other thing that has significantly changed. Insofar as her position has been strengthened there is also one caveat there. But if we go through the scenarios, it must be possible that there will be more than one vote on this and that people might game it in those terms as well. So if you think this is likely to go to the Commons twice, possibly first time gets rejected, and this happens a lot. I was actually thinking—it’s completely unrelated—I was thinking of the bailout deal after 2008 in Congress, which had to twice, and it did require certain sort of disciplining effects to work after Congress had voted down the first time, the markets to crash and so on to focus people's minds. My guess is that might be what happens here, that actually people will on the first vote adopt principled positions and then they will come around because she's not going to resign if she loses the first vote, she'll have another go. So my guess is this is going to go through on a second vote.
KENNETH: I think I agree with that. The question is does anything have to happen in between times, and again…
DAVID: The markets crashing.
KENNETH: That's the thing, isn't it? I mean I think it’s that point. I mean I think we have always been… Theresa May spoke to the CBI this week. And business has been sort of somewhat on the margins or episodic in this debate, hasn't really managed to coalesce or provide a big force and maybe that's the point, if business really gets its act together at this point and gets behind the prime minister and says, ‘Look this is it. This really is it.’ That could be the thing.
CHRIS: So I think you're right. She wouldn't resign. I think it’s her sort of determination to see it through I think leads to this kind of multiple vote scenario. If you then assume there'll be more than one vote then how you act in the first vote is very different from thinking it's the final vote. I don't know…
DAVID: As with all things, before the referendum there had been a thought there might be two. That's how politics works. [25:20]
CHRIS: What happens in between? I mean the market's response…
DAVID: I know and it’s Christmas. I don't actually know if the first one goes down how quickly you could have a second one but I'm guessing Christmas intervenes. I don’t know.
CHRIS: That would be too long especially if there's a sort of… there’s also this criticism that there’s an engineered market reaction, that this is all a kind of conspiracy to get it through and actually two votes is better for May than one.
HELEN: The thing about the markets though is that there aren't some general sort of markets that are going to do this after the first 48 hours or so. The only real market that's been responsive to what's been going on with the Brexit negotiations is sterling, sterling against the dollar, sterling against Euro. The last few weeks is British 10 year bonds, no impact whatsoever on what's going on. Now if you go back to the U.S. cases, that was the share market and a lot of those were bank shares that were crashing that was going to make the banking crisis directly worse. In the case of another fall in sterling, it doesn't have such direct consequences. I'm not saying it's a matter of no economic relevance. It would likely produce somewhat higher inflation in maybe a few months down the road but it's not got the same disciplinary effect as a bond market crash would have say on Italy over the next few weeks.
DAVID: It's also possible, the U.S. stock market is wobbling at the moment. Techs shares are in real trouble. And there could be—it’s not all about Brexit, it's not all about us, we’re not the center of the world. Things could happen even in the next few weeks that put this in a different light.
KENNETH: There is also one other event that may happen at a crucial time, which is that the Court of Justice of the European Union will give its ruling on whether it is possible to revoke the Article 50 notice unilaterally or not because that case is now being heard at the end of this month with a judgment due sometime before Christmas. So regardless of what it says, it may just become a kind of catalytic moment where people start talking about whether we still want to carry on with this.
DAVID: God it’s complicated.
CHRIS: That would embolden Remain cause by saying, ‘In actual fact guys, we can just pull the plug on it.’
DAVID: Do you have a sense of how that's going to go?
KENNETH: My hunch is that the court will say that—if it decides it's admissible in the first place, which is another question, the government is opposing this very strongly. But if it is admissible, the court is I think likely to say that the Article 50 notice can be revoked and that it will put in place very limited conditions, for example obligations of good faith, sincere cooperation amongst the parties. I don’t think it will want to start laying down bright line guidelines for what the European Council should do. But my hunch would be that I would say that it was revocable up until the point where the UK was to leave.
HELEN: The other thing is is that Italy could reach its climax of a crisis at the same time in December because it is the month that ECB stops QE. So it's going to be a busy month.
DAVID: And it’s Christmas.
CHRIS: I think the wider context is important but my impression is that there is a kind of parliamentary bubble here and people are entirely within it, and the MPs are really looking inside of themselves and wondering what this means for them, their relationship to their constituencies and their party, and whether they balance principle vs. something more pragmatic. It's a kind of soul searching moment for Parliament. And the dynamics of that I think will be as decisive as some of these wider things.
DAVID: Because I also think that the thing that changes between the first vote and the second vote is the attitudes of Labour MPs. I think there's a possibility it holds together for one vote. I think it's much harder for the line to be held for two because the pressure will be huge and all those other dynamics come into play as well, not just thinking about a general election but whether they want to go into that election advocating Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister under these kinds of conditions.
HELEN: I think the other thing that's really important too if there is any possibility of a first and second vote is at the moment those Labour MPs who do want to support this deal, whatever the position that the Labour leadership ends up taking on it, do not know how many Conservative MPs are willing to support it. So it's one thing for them to say, ‘Okay we'll abstain or even vote for it,’ if they think there's a reasonable chance that it will go through. It's quite another if they think that there aren't enough conservative MPs, given that the DUP will vote against it, in order for it to go through. So in some sense they need two bites at it because they've got a information deficit. They simply don't know how many Conservative MP’s are willing to support it. And they need to be able, if they are going to either abstain or vote for the deal, to know that that will produce a victory for the deal. It's no good them making these compromises, in some cases potentially even sacrificing their careers with their members in their constituencies, if the thing is going down anyway. [30:02]
DAVID: One more level of complication: I mean this is a classic political scenario in that it's both simplifying and complicating itself at the same time. We're moving towards a moment of choice and yet the things that inform that moment of choice are mind bending because it includes the future of the Union as well. So we've got a lot of the pressure on this deal is coming from people who say the problem with this deal is it sets up differentials within the Union, not just Northern Ireland versus the rest of UK, but Scotland in relation to Northern Ireland. I noticed that the noise coming out of Spain today I think was, ‘We can take a hard line on this because this deal is going to break up the UK. We’ve really weakened these people by getting them to agree to this.’ And then it was pointed out to the Spanish person, so the Spanish foreign minister, ‘But haven't you got problems of your own?’ ‘Our problems are nothing compared to what this is going to do to the UK.’
KENNETH: I mean there was something said about Spain wouldn’t oppose an independent Scotland's application to join the European Union.
DAVID: Yeah, what a helpful comment. So I’ve got two questions, both for you. One is going back to when you wrote your book, how central did you think in the politics of a Brexit was not just Northern Ireland going to be—because we've said in a way that the Northern Ireland question has, I think, taken some people by surprise, the extent to which it has become the dominant feature of this narrative. Did you sense that a year, 18 months ago? Was it always going to be that? And then where are we now in relation to the… not just the Northern Ireland UK question but the Northern Ireland, Scotland, UK question?
KENNETH: I think I probably fell into the same trap as most other people, which was to kind of treat the Northern Ireland issue as a silo, and you'd have to fix that but you'd be doing this other thing at the same time, which is working out what the future relationship would be.
DAVID: So it wouldn't be driving the relationship.
KENNETH: But I think now clearly these are much more closely connected. But you’re absolutely right on the Scotland point, which is clearly, you can see that the Scottish Government is waiting to see precisely how this plays out because their view has always been that they wanted to keep Scotland within a single market. If the arrangement that is agreed is one which will keep Northern Ireland very closely aligned to the single market that becomes a pretext for making that argument. But of course the problem for Scotland, there’s always going to be the question of, well, if you actually Brexit was a bad idea because you were taking part of the EU out of its major trading bloc, how does it make sense to take Scotland out of its mutual trading bloc, which is the rest of the UK? And I’m not so sure that the conditions are great for Nicola Sturgeon in trying to make another independence move but it seems likely that she will.
HELEN: I think the interesting thing here on the Northern Ireland side of it is that the Democratic Unionists—and indeed the unionists generally because the Ulster unionists are opposing this as well—are in serious danger of overplaying their hand in ways that in the medium to long term will actually make them staying in the union much more difficult. Because there is a scenario in which this goes down simply because of the Democratic Unionist position.
DAVID: This goes down in Parliament?
HELEN: So essentially, yes, this goes down in Parliament.
DAVID: And you mean gets voted down.
HELEN: Yes, and lets just say for the sake of argument that the outcome of this then begins to look at the possibility of staying in the United Kingdom, I should say staying in the European Union. Then the Democratic Unionists have got the blame for Brexit not happening. Now, I think at that point they’re going to find that there’s a serious risk that after all the… what’s the way of putting this… the IRA were unable through the period of their armed struggle to break consent in England, Wales, and Scotland to Northern Ireland being in the United Kingdom. I think in the long term the Democratic Unionists might find that they are able to weaken that quite considerably if they end up with the blame for not having Brexit. Now they are actually getting something quite considerable out of it because despite the fact that the majority in Northern Ireland didn't vote for Leave, the Democratic Unionist supported Leave and without a majority in Northern Ireland, thanks to voters in the rest of the United Kingdom, they are getting what they what they want. And they’ve now taken a position where they do want to compromise about anything. And in doing so they're risking Brexit not happening and I think that if things turn out badly they will come to regret that very deeply.
DAVID: Well isn't that another first vote, second vote scenario? There's a huge difference then doing it twice. So first time round there might be a whole range of people who could get the blame but as it focuses on are we really voting this down, don’t you think they might flip?
CHRIS: I think they might do because I think Helen is right that in some ways this idea that the Brexit deal poses a threat to the integrity of the United Kingdom I think is actually, it's the other way around. I think the cat is out of the bag in terms of the decentralized and sort of devolved nature of the United Kingdom. But if the deal doesn't go through then what you're seeing is essentially a difficulty within the United Kingdom as a polity of translating a majority that happens to be an English majority into a UK wide position. How do you have a union if you can’t do that? So I think by getting the deal through, you’re actually in some ways cementing… I mean it creates all sorts of secondary problems. But the essence of it is that you had a vote that was the majority vote that happened to be concentrated in England but it was then generalized to the whole of the United Kingdom, that’s how the union works. If you can’t do that, you don’t have a union.
DAVID: And it's also true that the last general election seem to cement the idea that we had UK-wide politics again. So a lot is going to turn on whether that's true in the next general election, we’re back to the two main parties not in Northern Ireland but in the rest of the UK fighting it out. The SNP were being squeezed. But the alternative would be in the next general election the SNP do what they did in the 2015 election and they clean up in Scotland. Then that would be a breakpoint, I think.
KENNETH: Going back to your point about the two-fold scenario. If this seems likely that would tend to suggest there is not going to be any attempt to make the first vote a confidence vote in any way then. Is that right?
DAVID: No, well, I don't… Does anyone know? I mean that could be a difference in the first and second vote: the first isn't, the second is. [36:04]
CHRIS: Surely for Labour there's a strong incentive to make it a much more whipped vote in first round because this is a chance to…
DAVID: I'm sure that Labour will whip it the first time around. And the other thing that the government could do is call Labour's bluff on a free vote. So they make it a free vote and defy Labour to refuse that because I think that would complicate things a lot for Labour if they were the ones who were resisting a free vote.
HELEN: I think we've got to factor in as well is what the DUP have done on other things since. I mean you could say that we don't actually have a government with a majority in the House of Commons, even under supply and confidence, after the votes and the abstentions that they did on various bits of the finance. We could say that we now have a minority government. So it is not quite clear what the Parliament’s having confidence or not having confidence in because what is supposed to be the arrangement that produces a parliamentary majority to all intents and purposes doesn't really exist any longer.
DAVID: I want to ask one wider question about the politics of this, which I've been thinking about this week, Theresa May has started to address it, which is just this basic question: If this is the deal or the first stage of the thing that's going to establish our future relationship outside of the European Union, what is the dividend for the voters? The people who voted for this because they wanted their lives to improve in some way, they wanted tangible results… And she's got this mantra now, which is I think something like taking back control of our money, our laws, and our borders. And that's her attempt to say, ‘You will notice this in your lives.’ But will people? So the money, thing they won't. No doubt there will be tax cuts and this and that but that would happen anyway. The laws, will people notice? Will there be sort of signal cases where the government's able to say, ‘Ha, this is why it was so great to be outside EU.’ The borders is the one that she's really putting her political capital behind and she's certainly, in speaking to the CBI and others, that’s the one that she is really emphasizing. The big danger it seems to me, not in sort of technical terms this is Brexit in name only, but the people who voted for Brexit because they genuinely believed that Brexit would in some sense improve something don’t get anything, don’t get any sense of anything having changed.
HELEN: Well I think that they do in the sense that if it goes through what they’ve got is that the electorate has repudiated the majority of the political class who didn't want this to happen.
DAVID: But that's saying what they get is just the thing. I mean it's almost like saying what they get is the people made the decision and the political class had to follow through on it. I still think that there needs to be something more than that.
HELEN: But it presumes that most people who voted Leave thought that what they were doing was saying, ‘We want to leave the European Union and then we want this on top of it,’ rather than the possibility that the majority of them simply wanted to leave the European Union.
DAVID: I suppose it's the notice the difference question. Where are people are going to notice the difference?
KENNETH: Austerity is the big story behind Brexit anyway. It's a major cause of Brexit. So if what happens in the end is that we see the ending of austerity in some way shape or form, people will believe that that's what Brexit has delivered.
DAVID: Will it?
KENNETH: I think so to some degree because it's the only thing… because on the border stuff I think already Theresa May is already getting pushback from business about actually we want more free movement and we want free movement of low skills and not just high skills. On the law’s side, there’s going to be so much alignment anyway. And it was never was a big thing. There was very little that people would actually have said, ‘We really disliked that thing and it comes from Europe and that's what we want to change.’ But I think Gove will probably push very strongly on having greater control over the agricultural side of things, but is that a big vote winner out there? Not so sure.
DAVID: Because one of the complications here is that there are various sort of end of austerity dividends that are starting to be talked about from the Conservative side coming through, more investment in the NHS and so on. But they've almost jumped the gun on that. In a way, they needed to hold off on that and wait for this to go through and then say, even if it's a total fib, now we can invest in the NHS. I almost feel they've got the politics the wrong way round on this.
CHRIS: I think it underestimates people slightly to sort of think that their focus around Brexit is on the sort of the differences in terms of money and laws and borders. I think the question that Brexit poses is really who calls the shots. It's a question of where power lies in the United Kingdom and who feels like they have some voice in our politics. That's what it's become. That's not what it was necessarily at the outset. But over the course of the negotiations, and whether the cause for Remain and for putting the whole thing off and disrupting the outcome has become so strong, the second referendum has become a very present thing in the debates. It's now gone to the stage where I think that what people who voted to Leave, what matters most is to be able to demonstrate that there is a connection between what they voted for and what the government does. In some ways it's symbolic and at the other level it's at the very essence of the referendum. [40:57]
DAVID: So I don’t normally… I really think I fundamentally disagree with you. If that's right, I think what Brexit has shown—and this seemed to me part of the fantasy of Brexit is that we lack the institutional and political capacity actually to get our politics back in a shape where people have confidence in it. I think it's been damaging for people's confidence in Britain's capacity to take its own political decisions. That actually the problem with Brexit is that if that was what people wanted, there is a real risk at the end of this that they don’t feel it was worth it. We feel politically weaker. We’ve seen the problem with our politics. It’s really hard for us to actually get things done and nothing is going to improve that. I don’t see that changing.
HELEN: I think the thing though is it goes back to this sort of critique, I think, that’s run through what Leave voters were supposedly doing in voting to leave the European Union that almost always comes up with an explanation that has nothing to do with the European Union itself. And so this is where I think that the austerity narrative falls down. Aside from anything else, you've got to explain why most of the voters were Conservative voters. If you say, ‘Who are the voters who’ve got to think that this was worth it,’ the majority of them, clearly not all of them, the majority are Conservative voters and they've not done this, voted to leave the European Union, because what they wanted to do was end austerity. They wanted to end Britain's membership of the European Union, rightly or wrongly. And so ending it in itself has got to be important. So the question then becomes, ‘Are they going to think that it's Brexit in name only?’ If it is the case still that it looks like on any number of issues that we're still aligned with European Union, or the European Court of Justice ends up still having influence, this is going to be a real problem with a significant number of these voters. Now you can then turn around and say, ‘Well are they going to then have confidence that the people who they are giving power to, their own representatives chosen in Britain, are going to do any better in terms of governance issues on the things they think the European Union has done badly?’ And I think that's an open question.
DAVID: That for me is the open question.
HELEN: Open question about what comes next. But I don't think that they need to have a vindication of British institutions in order to come to the conclusion that they were right about the failure of European Union institutions.
KENNETH: Austerity is what created the majority. It created a different constituency to add to that constituency of mainly conservative voters who are always euro-skeptics. But in terms of your point about the kind of wide discontent with European institutions, and this is where we actually have to get out of the bubble of Britain and UK and see actually these discontents lie elsewhere. I do think austerity are hiding them elsewhere in Europe. We see in Italy, in the discussion that they had already about Euro control over budgets there. And European Union politics there is clearly continuing to act on the domestic level in that way. And this is where I think Chris has a point to say maybe the dividend is just to say, ‘Whatever happens we get to make our own choices.’ But I think in the context of the United Kingdom, making our own choices in a devolution context where different parts of the UK feel differently about this, it's going to be a very destabilised politics in the immediate aftermath anyway.
DAVID: Kenneth’s blog is called Brexit time and it's got a really useful and interesting account of what the backstop means. I highly recommend it. Over Christmas we're going to do what we did over the summer, which has put out some guides. We've got some very interesting people lined up Martin Rees is going to talk about existential risk. Helen's going to explain Bretton Woods. Diane Coyle is going to tell us about economic well-being. And Helen and I will be around because if anything happens, we'll be here to tell you what we think. My name is David Runciman and we've been talking politics.