Brexit is a luxury for the few – The EU is a necessity for the many

2018 is the year we need to #stopbrexit. Opposition to Brexit throughout 2017 was remarkably constant and evenly split. Private polling however suggests some ‘Releavers’ (effectively the softer remain half) have rejoined hard Remainers, and there is now a small percentage of ‘Bregretters’. Some leading pollsters argue 60% plus opposition to Brexit is needed for six consecutive months for enough Parliamentarians to start speaking out.

So the current direction of travel is towards Brexit even though some leading groups, notably half of EU27 ambassadors and High Commissioners in London, reportedly believe Brexit won’t happen. The May minority government has been longer lasting than many anticipated and to date has been able to progress Brexit legislation relatively unscathed. However, Brexit can still be reversed so the real question is how we might do so.

In this four part series, I shall briefly examine legislative developments and the upcoming timetable, prospects for the EU negotiations, mobilising public and political opinion against Brexit, and the prospects for a referendum on the terms.

To date in Parliament, there has been one significant victory with the narrow passage of Dominic Grieve’s Amendment 7 to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill. Clause 9 of the Bill is now “subject to the prior enactment of a (separate) statute by Parliament approving the final terms of withdrawal”. This presents Parliament with additional opportunities to shape the terms of departure, including possibly to remain in the Single Market and Customs Union, and to provide for a referendum on the terms. The recently relatively quiet hard Brexiters could also cause trouble for the Government on the £40 billion settling of accounts. However, it appears the ideological EUphobes are ready to accept Brexit at any price as long as they secure their long-cherished ‘Independence’ day.

Critics of the significance of Amendment 7 argue Parliament has limited ability to send the Government back to the EU negotiating table, and it is unlikely a sufficient number of Tory and/or Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MPs would risk bringing down the government. It will also be difficult for a vote on a no deal Brexit to be scheduled (in part why hard Brexiters favour this option). Pressing for the withdrawal of the Government’s (Article 50) intention to leave the EU would be a better option.

The passage of Amendment 7 will embolden the House of Lords to introduce more amendments to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill before Easter, some of which could ultimately be agreed by the Commons. Faced with a minority Government, the Lords will feel less bound by the Salisbury Convention. However, Lord Malloch-Brown, who is spearheading efforts to increase co-operation between leading anti-Brexit organisations, notes: “we have a right to send some of the worst aspects of the bill back to the Commons. But I think ultimately we have to defer to them” (Sunday Times, 7 January 2018). It is furthermore feared the Prime Minister will stuff the Lords with more peers than recommended by the agreed Burns committee (which suggested only one new peer is created for every two who died or retired).

The government is hoping for Royal Assent of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill by the summer so it can bring forward a raft of secondary legislation. The Government Brexit White Paper estimates between 800 and 1,000 statutory instruments are required to ensure newly ‘retained EU law’ functions after 29 March 2019. The Bill returns any powers pooled within EU structures to Westminster. Clause 11 prevents devolved administrations from modifying the new category of ‘retained EU law’. Yet there are 111 policy areas where EU and devolved powers intersect, notably agriculture and fisheries. The Government has hardly thought through how these powers will be allocated and operationalised, and has not fully included Parliament and devolved administrations in the process from the outset. That devolved administrations are being asked to consent to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill on the basis of ministerial promises risks exacerbating tensions, and reopening the question of Scottish independence and even a United Ireland.

Among the seven other Brexit bills, of particular note is an Immigration Bill, due to be published rather late in the day in Autumn 2018. How the Bill balances the interests of businesses, wanting to attract skilled and unskilled workers from the EU, and anti-immigration forces will stir the public debate at a time the Brexit deal is due to be finalised. Any attempt to have a less restrictive regime desired by business could incur the political wrath of those opposing EU immigration.

Delays in Brexit legislation are bogging down Parliament and risk paralyzing the civil service. In short, the Government’s tight legislative timetable (constrained by the 2019 departure date) and administrative workload could prove to be as problematic as the EU negotiations themselves. Brexit may be defeated by Brexit.

* Nick Hopkinson is chair of the Liberal Democrat European Group (LDEG) and former Director, Wilton Park, Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

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26 Comments

  • Mick Taylor 11th Jan '18 - 8:53am

    I agree we must stop Brexit, but how as a party are we to do this?
    I suggest that continuing to campaign for a third referendum after it has been overwhelmingly defeated in the Commons will get us nowhere. Even if the Lords were to put this into the bill, it would certainly be taken out again by the Commons.
    So, if the party is serious about stopping Brexit, we must now commit ourselves the campaigning for that, at every election, at whatever level. We must also make it abundantly clear where we stand, in press releases, on social media, in PPBs and in leaflets.
    My local party has submitted a resolution for debate at Southport, which suggests we should put the campaign for a third referendum on one side and campaign as the party that wants to stay in the EU. We suggest, amongst other things, that we should have a new strapline ‘Liberal Democrats, Campaigning to Stay in the EU’.
    You can read our proposal here:
    https://www.dropbox.com/s/uwq6jmj111hycsh/Time%20to%20stop%20Brexit.docx?dl=0
    Please get behind a much needed change of direction. We can’t stop Brexit by being equivocal about it.

  • It requires a powerful and very respected person to lead such a campaign. Not a Lord and certainly not the least trusted of our politicians, namely Blair and Clegg (see current polling).

  • Katharine Pindar 11th Jan '18 - 10:35am

    It is helpful to have more detail on the Parliamentary procedures regarding the EU Withdrawal Bill, so thank you for this, Nick Hopkinson. However, we also must avoid getting bogged down, as you say Parliament and the civil service are in danger of being.
    Let us keep a clear sense of direction.

    You write that ‘Brexit may be defeated by Brexit’, but don’t explain how that could actually happen. The Government is not going to say “It’s all too difficult!” and call it off.
    Could the Government however find the negotiations do not produce a good enough deal, for instance on passporting rights for financial services, or produce no deal at all on the Irish border conundrum, and conclude that Brexit must be abandoned? That would be a tremendous failure for them, almost impossible.

    They might need the Labour Party to make that decision for them, come off the fence, declare Brexit won’t work, and aim to defeat the Government with the new statute. That would only happen with some Tory rebels voting with them, and perhaps that is the best hope Remainers have for a parliamentary means of stopping Brexit.

    What can our party do? Not, certainly, Mick Taylor, “put the campaign for a third referendum on one side”. That is as futile as the Labour Party depending on transitional arrangements which would of course have to end. Our party policy of a referendum on the deal actually allows the Government a way out when the negotiations are failing – they can throw the decision back on the people by opting for a referendum. That has the political advantage of leaving the decision on leaving or not to a popular vote as was originally intended. If we appear to abandon support for a referendum, we will get too little credit if it actually takes place.

    If is also futile to ‘put it on one side’ for the simple reason that the Parliamentary decision to hold another referendum must be taken by the end of October this year, to allow time for it to take place by the deadline of March 29th next year. The only alternative is for the Government to negotiate for the Withdrawal Date to be deferred, which seems unlikely, and is out of our hands. The referendum proposal must not be.

  • John Marriott 11th Jan '18 - 10:47am

    Mr Hopkinson states that “The EU is a necessity for the many”. Well, in the immortal words of Mandy Rice-Davis, he would say that wouldn’t he? The trouble is that it is the few, namely those running things in Brussels and Strasbourg, who have failed to take the many along with them – and I don’t just mean in these islands.

    When I voted to stay in what was basically an ‘Economic Community’ in 1975 Europe, and the world in general, was a very different place from what we have today. It’s ironic that the things that Britain had a massive hand in shaping, namely the expansion to the east and the Single Market, are the very things, not forgetting freedom of movement, which are causing the most difficulties right now.

    In the recent referendum I voted pragmatically like Lord Hague to stay in; but I would never vote for a Schulz/Macron style United States of Europe, nor, In my humble opinion, would the majority of the citizens (as opposed to the politicians) of the EU.

    IF we are to continue to have any kind of future progressive relationship with our nearest neighbours the economic argument alone will not win the day. As an island race many of us, particularly those of us who call ourselves loosely ‘English’, have an atavistic suspicion of ‘the foreigner’ especially the further away you get from the Southeast. ‘Splendid Isolation’ is alive and well in many of our northern towns (not forgetting counties like Lincolnshire!). You can claim that the ‘Leave’ majority vote was a reaction to globalisation and ‘the elites’ if you wish. My bet would be on ‘immigration’, pure and simple.

    If someone could get a handle on so called ‘Freedom of Movement’, whose interpretation is now causing rumblings throughout the EU we might have something worth fighting for. When I emigrated to Canada in 1970 I made sure I had a job to go to first. Surely, that’s not too much to ask for all those who fancy plying their trade away from their native shores.

  • Jayne mansfield 11th Jan '18 - 10:58am

    Nigel Farage is changing his mind. He is starting to think that a second referendum would be a good thing.

    This is the shot in the arm that the campaign to stay in the EU most needs, a high profile campaigner for Brexit arguing for a second referendum. It needed to be someone who was initially pro-Brexit, or someone like Farage who believes that Leave will win if a second referendum is held .

    This is the breakthrough needed and it would then fall to the remain side to mount a less dismal campaign than the last one. One that acknowledges that the majority of people do not love the EU and all its workings.

  • John Marriott 11th Jan '18 - 12:06pm

    So, Mr/Ms LibCync (God, I wish people would tell you who they actually are), this proves that you are better at reading the small print than the rest of us. By the way, I too still have those leaflets you have kindly published.

    I had not long returned to the UK after four years abroad, the last of which was spent teaching in West Germany, where I could see the benefits of long term membership of the economic community at first hand. From what I remember of the first Referendum campaign, which, incidentally, was conducted in a much more mature fashion than the recent one, the phrase that resonated was ‘pooling’ not surrendering sovereignty. However, the clincher for most people was the lifeline that membership of this trading block offered us at the time, following the quadrupling of oil prices worldwide (and that of house prices here, which my wife and I had learned to our cost the year before) befre the arrival of the IMF and, crucially, before North Sea Oil kicked in – and what a mixed blessing that turned out to be!

    By the way, it’s Marriott with two ts not one!

  • Peter Watson 11th Jan '18 - 12:13pm

    @Katharine Pindar “What can our party do? Not, certainly, Mick Taylor, “put the campaign for a third referendum on one side”.”
    I don’t think that Mick Taylor’s position is necessarily incompatible with yours.
    “Campaigning to Stay in the EU” is a clear and unambiguous position for the party, and a second referendum would be one way to achieve that aim. The official Lib Dem line seems confusingly to emphasise the “means” rather than the “end”. I think it does so deliberately in order to reconcile “respecting the result of the referendum” with “exiting from Brexit”, but the whole “voted for departure not a destination” tactic is not a particularly strong one.

  • Sorry Katherine, the referendum is a lost cause and many in the party are still acting as if it can happen. Let’s be clear, the Commons voted overwhelmingly against the proposal and don’t seem likely to change their minds anytime soon, if ever. The October deadline is in any event fictitious. I am certain the EU would allow for time for a further referendum if that were requested at a Kate stage. No! I am saying that campaigning for a referendum instead of for staying in the EU is a waste of time at the moment. We need as a party to set out our pro EU credentials clearly and without vacillation and campaign for what we believe in. If at a later stage -though I’m against it personally- we can offer the referendum as the means. Peter Watson is right on that. If we and other remainers don’t convince the electorate by campaigning, then a further referendum is futile.

  • @John Marriott How can one actually “pool sovereignty” any more than one can “pool 2 marriages” and still be monogamous? 🙂

  • paul barker 11th Jan '18 - 2:27pm

    Public Opinion has definitely shifted in an Anti-Brexit direction but not nearly fast enough yet. The best way we can contribute is by winning Elections & taking Votes from Labour & Tories.

  • Nigel Farage, yes I agree with your comments today. “Maybe a second referendum is the only solution to stop the winging and nonsense statements”. My guess is that it would be a decisive result one way or another, probably 90% of us would then accept the outcome.

  • JayneMansfield 11th Jan '18 - 3:13pm

    It is reported that Nick Clegg has gone on twitter to say, ‘I agree with Nigel’. In my opinion, there are some who should stay quiet rather than strangle Farage’s new possible change of mind at birth.

    Some prominent brexiteers are anguished and claiming that that Farage has become deranged, but there are other Brexiteers who, from past history hand onto every word, of Farage.

    It was always, a prominent brexiteer, or former brexiteer, that needed to argue for a second referendum if leave voters were to be persuaded to agree on the idea and not see it as an establishment stitch up.

  • Andrew McCaig 11th Jan '18 - 3:16pm

    Paul Barker,
    I agree. The first job if we want to stop Brexit is to persuade Labour and Tory MPs to stop Brexit. They will only do that if they lose votes and council seats to us. Unfortunately, where I come from we are not going to do that by going on about Brexit, and certainly not by anything as daft as changing our name in the way suggested above. We did try “banging on about Brexit” up here in the GE and our vote fell from 6 to 2.6%. Now we have to persuade 2000 people who voted Labour or Tory less than a year ago to change to us, in order to hold a seat we lost narrowly in 2015 and 2016….

  • John Marriott 11th Jan '18 - 3:59pm

    Dear ‘Facts’,
    My answer to your question about ‘pooling’ is “Search me”. I’m just quoting what was being said at the time. As far as marriage is concerned, it would appear that the Brexiteers wish to remain single (or possibly live in sin).
    STOP PRESS : According to today’s Times, Poland’s Nationalist government wants to take the country out of the EU. What with Spain v Catalonia and elections in Italy later this year things are getting very interesting on the mainland. And then there’s the Greek tragedy and the Flemings v the Walloons in Belgium. Oh, and I gather that things could be hotting up in the Czech Republic. Putin must be rubbing his hands with glee (as opposed to Trump, who is just waving his about!)

  • @John Marriott “My answer to your question about ‘pooling’ is “Search me”.” 🙂

  • Brilliant, Never Gonna Give EU Up, from a Sharon Redd song. I’ve been looking for a pro EU slogan for ages and you’ve hit on it.

  • Katharine Pindar 11th Jan '18 - 5:29pm

    John Marriott, there is no point in campaigning against Brexit, unless you can tell people how this might be achieved. We need to get more ordinary people on side about stopping it, and we are up against a tide of statements every day beginning ‘We are going to leave’ or ‘When we leave’, which can be a kind of osmosis to people to make them believe it has to happen. So we need to explain that Exiting Brexit can be done by Parliament directly, or through a referendum, and that imagining it will somehow vanish through transitional arrangements or by the EU extending the time we have beyond March 2019 are just pie in the sky, more of the fantasy arguments that have prolonged the debate.

    I can think of four good reasons why we should still campaign for the referendum option. 1. It is the more democratic solution, giving the people the ultimate say. 2. It would give the Government a way out, if they find negotiations are too damaging or impossible to agree on, without total loss of face or calling another general election.
    3. If we now decide not to bother with it and a referendum is indeed held, we will lose almost all the credit we now have for consistently demanding it. 4. It is the only policy we are known for, that we not only oppose Brexit but demand a referendum on the deal, and if we give it up people will again wonder what use the Lib Dems are and what they stand for – other than vacillation.

  • John Marriott 11th Jan '18 - 6:18pm

    Dear Katharine Pindar,
    Do people actually read what I write? Who said anything about not campaigning against Brexit? As I think I said in another thread, following my recent decision to dip my toes back into the febrile waters of LDV, although tending towards the Doris Day approach to future events (‘Ce será, será whatever will be will be’), I don’t think the binary choice offered nearly two years ago is the end of the story.

    However, if you really want to campaign for the British people to think again, then for goodness sake, be prepared to offer them a different menu of choices from the one last time round. Why not latch onto the feeling within the EU that things aren’t going as swimmingly as some of the federalist zealots might have you believe. Remember the fatalistic Clegg response to the question from the audience member, when he thought he could take on Farage, who asked him how the EU might look in ten years’ time (“More or less the same”) – almost as excruciating as his statement that he and his colleagues were “the party of IN”, whereas Nigel and his UKIP buddies were “the party of PutIN”. No wonder the remain campaign, like Neil Kinnock at that infamous Sheffield Rally back in 1992 snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

    Putting all your eggs into the anti Brexit basket isn’t going to move those national percentage points into double figures any time soon. Surely the Lib Dems have got to be more than ‘the party of in’. They used to be the radical advocates of a Federal UK, of reformed and vibrant local government and fair votes, not forgetting environmental issues when Caroline Lucas and co were still in nappies. Why can’t they rediscover that ability to think outside the box again that made many people, myself included, join their crusade over forty years ago? You see, in or out of the EU there will still be a country to govern.

  • There would be a major difference in a second referendum the leadership of the campaign would be different. No Cameron or Osbourne for Remain and May no doubt campaigning for Out. Those that used it as an excuse to kick Cameron would be in such a pickle, vote Yes to support May and a hard Brexit, all fantasies of kicking “The Man” or Lexit gone, how would they justify supporting May (only if Corbyn gave her a fig leaf by supporting leave could they have any intellectual cover).

  • Peter Watson 11th Jan '18 - 7:50pm

    @Katharine Pindar “there is no point in campaigning against Brexit, unless you can tell people how this might be achieved.”
    It’s not really an either…or situation, but flipping your staement around, one could say that there is even less point in campaigning about how to stop Brexit unless you can tell people why it should be achieved!
    If we consider the (very!) hypothetical choice between stopping Brexit and holding another referendum, then which would Lib Dems prefer? If the former, then why campaign instead for the latter?

  • The expert predictions (which Michael Gove was tired of), which were floating around at the time of the referendum showed that under Brexit a decade on we would be richer than now, but not by as much as if we Remained.

    People who talk about Brexit as a disaster, throwing away the future and in this case, taking away a necessity, are ignoring the experts just as much as Gove was and should be treated with the same respect we would accord Gove.

  • William Fowler 12th Jan '18 - 12:39pm

    Say this as a remainer, you may find if the EU is seen as bullying the UK a lot of people will react strongly and vote to leave just to spite them (and even if they don’t the right wing press will print stuff that indicates they are, so to speak). Farage may have picked up on plans to restrain freedom of movement in the EU and therefore gone into panic mode as it would take the immigration card off the table to a large extent and give cause for a 2nd referendum. Meanwhile, the govn is running the excellent plan of getting companies rather than taxpayers to pay for access to the single market (most likely a turnover tax on various sectors depending on how much they benefit) and if they pull that off, the promise of lots of money for the NHS may trump everything else.

  • Antony Watts 13th Jan '18 - 12:50am

    Completely agree with 1st poster, Mike. 110% just push the EU. Let’s make sure everyone knows the facts and advantages in bullet point sizes. And have EVERY local LibDem activity talk about nothing else for at least 1 year.

  • Nick Hopkinson 14th Jan '18 - 12:34pm

    Thank you all for the many thoughtful comments, some of which I have factored into subsequent posts in this series. The only point I would raise now is that Tom Newton Dunn, Sun politics editor, interestingly appeared to suggest on today’s Sunday Politics that a referendum on the terms now appears certain.

  • Peter Hirst 15th Jan '18 - 4:34pm

    How things can change! I agree we need to pursue due process in reversing Brexit, and to me there is another critical issue, namely reforming our democratic processes. If we do not, this ludicrous situation will recur. We desperately need a codified or written constitution that will, amongst other things, detail the when, how and why’s of constitutional referenda. We cannot run the risk of political expediency exposing us to a re-run.

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