With Theresa May exhausted of all her options, Britain is without any clear direction on Brexit.

By A conversation with a 'Brexit tragic'

Posted on April 5, 2019

The CEO Magazine spoke to Simon Tormey, Professor of Politics at the University of Sydney, about Brexit, what’s happening in the UK and where the country goes from here.

In the past week, Theresa May has made a series of attempts to pass her Brexit deal, including offering to resign if the Parliament will pass her deal, allowing the Commons to vote on a series of alternatives and reaching out to the opposition. With all options seeming to fail, the UK now has until 12 April to approve a plan to leave the EU. With the parliament deadlocked, the UK appears to be trapped in ambiguity where it was once perilously close to crashing out of the EU.

To make some sense of where the country is headed, The CEO Magazine sat down with Professor Simon Tormey, Professor of Politics at the University of Sydney. A self-described “Brexit tragic”, he’s written about democracy and populism, with a special interest in European politics. He spoke about the current state of Brexit, how the UK moves on from here, and who he thinks is likely to succeed May as the next prime minister.

This conversation took place on 29 March, before May’s deal was rejected for a third time, all alternative deals had been rejected, and before May had made overtures to the Labour Party. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The CEO Magazine: Why is it important that May has said she would resign if her Brexit deal passes?

Simon Tormey: This is a Faustian bargain, where she’s trying to get a withdrawal agreement over the line in the House of Commons. It was voted down by 230 votes in December and by 149 four weeks ago. She’s got one more attempt to do it on Friday and, in order to narrow the gap and give her a chance, she was basically pressured by the European Research Group (ERG).

She went to them and said, ‘What is the price I need to pay for your support for this withdrawal agreement?’ They said, ‘If you stand down, then some of us will vote with you.’ It’s a very unusual situation.

In a sense, it’s because May’s whole time at the premiership has been basically about trying to get Brexit over the line. This is her last-gasp, and she feels that it’s worth more to her to get a Brexit deal than it is for her to carry on as prime minister. I think that’s a reasonable call given the situation she’s in.

Why is she in this situation? Because of a number of very bad judgement calls she made a couple of years ago, particularly calling a general election when she was sitting on a 32-seat majority in the House of Commons.

She thought, like many of us, that she would do very well. I put $10 of my own money on her receiving a 100-seat majority, but it didn’t work out like that. She ended up with a minority government, relying on the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to exercise a majority in the House of Commons.

She’s a minority leader in the House of Commons trying to steer difficult legislation through parliament, and that’s why she’s had to offer her own leadership to the extreme fringe of the Conservative party.

The thinking on the extreme fringe is that they don’t believe that May is tough enough with the EU. In the next phase of negotiations, after the withdrawal agreement is finalised, they want someone who is going to be much tougher with the EU and extract a better deal than they believe May could.

Why is there no consensus forming around a deal?

With the ERG, you’ve got a collection of 80–90 members who are committed to a hard Brexit. But that’s more or less the only thing they agree on; some of them are pragmatists, like Conservative MP David Davis, and we’ve already seen people say earlier in the week, ‘I’m going to support Theresa May because I fear that if we don’t then we’ll get a weak Brexit or no Brexit.’

Jacob Rees-Mogg shared that position earlier in the week, although he seems to have backtracked a little bit.

Then you’ve got 15–20 hardline, almost Taliban-like figures, who are absolutely determined under any circumstance to defend the idea of a complete break with the EU, no matter the impact or what people tell them about the economy.

These people are very committed, and they are the part of the origin of this problem that confronts the Conservative Party. It’s always had a strongly Eurosceptic wing that was, for about 50 years, a tiny minority unable to exercise a lot of control over what was going on. But they did when the Brexit vote came along.

Their sense of investment in getting what they would regard as a genuine Brexit is deep and they don’t want to budge.

Add to that the DUP, who said earlier this week that they couldn’t with live with the thought of Northern Ireland being treated differently to the rest of the UK. They think that’s the thin end of the wedge, because it allows the EU to pick off Northern Ireland and make a special case of it, leaving it isolated from the Irish in the south.

There are some strong ties there between members of the ERG and DUP, which prevent the Conservatives from taking the opportunity to push this over the line.

What do you see as more likely: another referendum or no deal?

This past week we’ve seen two tracks, one of which is watching May’s strategy of trying to present the withdrawal agreement back to parliament. There was a moment there when I thought she might just walk away from it all, because it’s quite clear that she just doesn’t have enough votes and is now risking humiliation.

She’s decided to put up with it though, so we have that discussion going on, and then of course the Speaker John Bercow allowed an amendment led by Conservative MP Oliver Letwin to open up the debate and see where opinions lie in the House of Commons.

It’s a clever two-stage process where the Speaker asked what the broad span of opinions were in the House, from revoking Article 50 all the way to a hard Brexit, dividing those up into eight choices which MPs could make on a non-preferential basis. They could simply back or tick the options they liked, and they will come back on Monday to order those in preference.

It’s clever, and the British press haven’t quite covered it the right way. They think it’s eight ‘No’ votes, and therefore, this process is in hiatus.
Letwin designed it to prevent people from being alienated from the process. He simply said, ‘Let’s bring all the preferences you’ve got to the table and then we’ll see if there’s three or four which gain significant support, and we’ll re-debate it on Monday and ask you to list those, like in an Australian election, from one to eight.’ Then you will actually have a consensus behind one or two things which will then go forward as the preference of the House of Commons.

There are two things there: What’s the outcome going to be, and how is that going to be handled given that the House of Commons is not supposed to be exercising power?

The first thing is surprise at the popularity of a second referendum.

A couple of weeks ago, we had the same amendment proposed in the House of Commons and it got 89 votes. This time, it got 269 votes, so that was the most popular option of all eight presented to MPs.

You’ve got to be thinking that opinion is turning there, and that there are quite a lot of MPs who would prefer a second referendum to a general election.
Why? Because this is a turkey not voting for Christmas. Obviously, they might lose their seat, salary and influence in a general election.
I think that may well be the top outcome that comes out on Monday, closely followed by membership of the customs union, which is broadly shared among those who do believe in some sort of Brexit.

The problem becomes that when we get those results, we’re not sure May is going to be in charge of the Conservative Party.
It could be a stand-in leader like de facto Deputy Prime Minister David Lidington – how does he handle this?

I suspect what he’ll say is, ‘What we need is a further extension to the EU pending a leadership election for the Conservative Party’, because they can’t organise that overnight. It’s a complex process.

Then, whoever is elected leader – say, Boris Johnson – is that person going to go along with a second referendum? If it’s Johnson, then no.
What he will say is, ‘We need a general election for the people of England to give us the mandate to go forward with whatever the options are.’
It’s a complicated way forward as far as I can see.

Who do you think is most likely to take over from May should she resign, and will that person be equipped to lead the country through what will likely be an economically and socially turbulent time?

I’ve been thinking for some time that Michael Gove is the most likely candidate, because he’s been cultivating a centrist pitch that is important in the conservative leadership election.

Why? Because it is a two-stage election; you first have an election among the MPs themselves, and when they get down to two candidates, the two are sent on a ballot paper to the broad membership of the Conservative Party in the country.

We’re probably going to see Johnson as one candidate, and then it would be a centrist candidate representing the more moderate or left wing of the party.
Gove has been making a lot of overtures to that wing of the party. We know he’s a Leaver, and that will appeal to the Conservative grassroots. But you’ve also got to appeal to the left wing of the party, those more concerned about the impact of Brexit, and I think Gove has been doing that quite well in the past three months.

The other figure I think might be a contender is Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt. I don’t think he’s a fantastically competent politician, because he made an appalling speech at the Conservative Party conference last year, but I think he’s nudging ahead of some of the other centrist candidates like Sajid Javid, who I don’t think has shown enough charisma.

I think Amber Rudd is too far to the left for most of the parliamentary party, and I think some of the other candidates like Dominic Raab reproduce the Johnson line. As does David Davis.

That leaves Matt Hancock, whose been quite sprightly on TV and is a well-known figure now who’s handled the NHS crisis pretty well.
But, if you’re betting on this, I would say that there’s going to be a contest between Johnson and Gove.

If it’s presented like that, you would think Johnson might win, because he’s very popular with the blue-rinse set, which is basically where the membership lies. The average age for Conservative Party members is over 70, of whom there are only about 100,000 left, the membership having shrunk in the past three decades.

Those who remain like Johnson because he’s very bouncy, jokey and comical. I think they might go for Johnson, and I don’t think the Labour Party would be too unhappy about that.

What dynamics are shaping up ahead of the next general election?

I expect we’re going to have an election soon because if there’s going to be a second referendum, any Conservative coming into the leadership will want to test it with the general public. They don’t want to be the person who has to manage a ‘Remain’ outcome, which a lot of people think might happen with a second referendum.

So, I do think an election is likely, and it could be as early as June or July.

As far as how it plays out, I’m seeing reports that speculate that opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn might stand down before an election. Maybe he’s unwell and doesn’t feel that at the age of 70 he wants to run a full election campaign with the prospect of five years in power. That’s highly speculative, but I’ve heard it from a number of sources now so it might be a factor.

If that happens, I suspect then you’re looking at Tom Watson or Keir Starmer stepping in as leader of the Labour Party. Both are centrists, and both are Remainers, so I think the Labour Party would course correct from being a party led by a Leaver with a Remainer majority that has to appeal to a Leaver constituency.

It would become a ‘Remain by second referendum’ party, and then the Conservative Party would come out as a Brexit party, and you would then have a clear choice for the electorate.

I think one of the fears is that, with Corbyn being a reluctant Remainer, you don’t have that clarity. I think that if he steps down and we get Starmer or Watson, then the lines will be relatively clear.

However, I do think the British electorate is quite spent on this, and whether that’s expressed by a second referendum or via a general election, there’s no getting away from it.

A lot of the press and academics like myself would love to think that we’ve turned the corner and the electorate wants to remain in the EU now, but John Curtice, who is the guru of gurus on polling and Professor of Politics at the University of Strathclyde, said earlier last week that it is too close to call.

The pattern of responses to the polls is almost identical to 2016, when everybody said the result would be ‘Remain’. He’s saying that at this juncture, we’ve got to be cautious about the outcome of a second referendum, because we might be back in the same situation in about six-month’s time.

Who’s more likely to become prime minister, Jeremy Corbyn or Boris Johnson?

That is a tough one. I kind of think that if a Johnson-led Conservative Party goes to an election against a Corbyn-led Labour Party, that the Conservatives win.

I know that the Conservatives look like they’re in a bit shambolic at the moment, but they’re the most successful force in an electoral history anywhere in the world. They’ve been fighting elections for more than 150-years, and they know how to get themselves together.

I think Boris is a charismatic figurehead, and he connects with a part of the British population even as he’s stumbling around and making apparent errors.

I think there is a kind of ‘Trump effect’ to him, where people like his plainspokenness.

He is very possessed with the idea of being in power and, of course, that creates a sort of momentum. Whether he can convince his own parliamentary party is another thing.

I think he’s got a lot of enemies in there, and there are a lot of sceptics that won’t want him to get through to that final contest.