The first phase of the Brexit saga will come to an end in coming days, with the UK Parliament set to give final approval to the Article 50 legislation that will trigger formal Brexit negotiations with the EU. Once this happens, the centre of gravity of the Brexit debate will shift, increasingly, from the UK stage to that of Europe at large.
Already, it is clear that UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s government will probably be defined by Brexit, which is already having profound implications for the nation. Amidst the sea of debate about England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland leaving the EU, there have been a number of key, distinctive discussions underway domestically which will help shape the UK’s forthcoming negotiating positions in talks with Brussels and the remaining 27 states.
Firstly, there has been a huge and important debate internally across the United Kingdom about what the meaning of last June’s referendum result actually was. Most crucially, the prime minister (who was a reluctant Remainer) has made clear her strong view that immigration and sovereignty were the primary drivers behind the Leave campaign’s victory.
From this perspective, it naturally follows that controlling migration flows from the EU and ending the jurisdiction in the UK of the European Court of Justice should therefore become key UK objectives for the forthcoming Brexit negotiations. Given the EU’s commitment to the free movement of goods, people, services and capital, this has pushed May towards a hard Brexit negotiating stance. This will see the UK, in her words, discarding “bits of the EU”, including membership of the 500 million consumer European Single Market, full membership of the EU Customs Union, leaving the Common Commercial Policy, and no longer being tied to the Common Commercial Tariff.
However, while May is currently riding high in the domestic polls, her narrative about Brexit is far from the entire picture, and there were — in fact — diverse and sometimes divergent views expressed by people voting to exit the EU last year. Some Leave voters, for instance, focused last June on perceived costs and constraints of EU membership other than immigration and sovereignty, including the issue of UK financial contributions to the supranational organisation’s budget.
Others voted for a vision of a buccaneering global UK that could, post-Brexit, allow the nation to secure new ties with countries outside of the EU. Meanwhile, a significant slice of the electorate voted Leave as a protest against non-EU issues such as the domestic austerity measures implemented by UK Governments since the 2008-09 international financial crisis.
Contrary to what many Brexiteers now insist, the Leave vote therefore encapsulated a range of sentiments, and there was (and still is) not a consensus across the nation behind any specific version of Brexit, whether hard or soft, disorderly or orderly. Indeed, the continuing divisions within the electorate on these issues (perhaps as big as on the basic merits of last June’s referendum decision itself) are still underlined in polls which tend to show the country broadly split over whether maintaining access to the European Single Market, or being able to limit migration, should be the key objective in negotiations.
In this context, one factor that has become clearer since the referendum is how Brexit is driving clearer positioning, and potentially even significant new electoral cleavages, by the UK’s main political parties (those with representation in England, Scotland and Wales). On one pole, the ruling Conservatives are now unifying around the government’s hard Brexit stance. Like the prime minister herself, this includes many former Remainers who have now switched sides. The other major party with a pro-Brexit message is the United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip). Yet, its vote could now be squeezed by the significant shift in the positioning of the Conservatives.
However, the threat Ukip poses to the Conservatives has distracted attention, in the eyes of many in the party, from the potential danger it poses to Labour. Ukip is thus hoping that it may now have more opportunities in Labour seats given that roughly two-thirds of constituencies with Labour MPs voted to leave, although Ukip — spectacularly — failed last month to win the Stoke Central by-election against Labour where around 70 per cent of voters last June voted to Leave.
Nonetheless, Labour has potentially the biggest positioning challenge of all the parties given that the party’s MPs represent both the top 20 Leave voting constituencies, and the 20 Remain constituencies, from the referendum. To be sure, much of the party faithful remains instinctively pro-EU, and some 65 per cent of Labour voters are believed to have backed Remain last June. However, the stance of the party’s leadership in the House of Commons was ultimately to vote to trigger Article 50 given the referendum result and potential risks of losing support in many of its heartland seats, especially in England, to Ukip and the Conservatives if Labour was perceived to thwart the democratic will of the populace. Hence the reason why the party’s MPs, by and large, have turned their energies not to opposing Brexit, but more to trying to soften the terms of any final deal with the EU.
Conversely, the Liberal Democrats are seeking to make political capital through steadfast opposition to Brexit. This stance has given the party clearer differentiation against all the main UK parties, and led it in December to win a by-election victory in Richmond Park in London against the Conservatives when Brexit was the defining issue.
Taken overall, Brexit is already having a big impact on UK domestic politics and this may only grow as the negotiations with Brussels and remaining 27 states proceed. Indeed, it is likely that this issue will frame the nation’s politics for several years and could yet prove the defining battleground in the general election currently scheduled for 2020.
Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS (the Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy) at the London School of Economics.