EU Affairs

Brexit: New Game with Old Pieces

Overtime is running. In April, the EU member states’ heads of state and government granted the United Kingdom seven more months to organize their withdrawal from the European Union. Three months have already passed. Both the chance for a second referendum and the risk of a “no deal” departure have increased.

The British House of Commons prepares for the next Brexit battle

Overtime is running. In April, the EU member states’ heads of state and government granted the United Kingdom seven more months to organize their withdrawal from the European Union. Three months have already passed. Both the chance for a second referendum and the risk of a “no deal” departure have increased.


British politics is increasingly comparable to a chessboard. The participating pieces have fought numerous battles over Brexit, without any clear winner. Resigning Prime Minister Theresa May failed to pass an agreement, due to the lack of majority for any option. The consequence is increasing polarization between two camps. One rejects Brexit altogether and demands either the revocation of Art. 50  or a second referendum. The other is willing to accept an uncontrolled departure without a contract, in order to finally implement Brexit. Who represents the colours black and white in this chess game, everyone may decide for himself or herself.


In any case, the colour grey is hardly represented anymore. The current competition for the succession of May as party leader and prime minister shows, that compromise candidates have no chance to win. Brexit hardliner Boris Johnson won the first ballot in the House of Commons faction by a clear margin, and can almost surely be considered the winner of the internal selection process. The centrifugal forces are also increasing within the Social Democratic Labor Group. Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is under pressure, due to his undecided attitude within his own party.


At the same time, while the pieces are taking up more extreme positions on the chessboard, there is little change in their balance of power, as a snap election  seems currently out of question. Current opinion polls estimate four parties between 20 and 25 percent and thus roughly equal: Labour, Conservatives, the recently founded Brexit Party by Nigel Farage and the Liberal Democrats. This poll confirms the lessons learned from the European election in the United Kingdom: The  Brexit impasse benefits especially the uncompromising Brexit advocates (Brexit Party) and the clear Brexit opponents (Liberal Democrats).


For the two established parties, Conservatives and Labour, these numbers mark a shrill alarm signal. They will do their utmost to finally “deliver”  Brexit, and therefore contain both the Brexit Party and the Liberal Democrats in the polls, before the next elections. Should they fail, the British two-party system is in danger of being overthrown. Neither the boardroom in the House of Commons nor the parliamentary processes for the formation of government are designed to fit four middle-sized parties – let alone the presumably very low willingness of the mentioned parties to form a coalition.


Since the next parliamentary matches over the form or prevention of Brexit must therefore be played with the same pieces as the previous ones, the only option left for the deputies is to reposition themselves or, as witnessed in a few cases, change colour. Much attention is therefore directed at the castling within the conservative party these days. Its members will be voting for one of two candidates, selected by the House of Commons faction, in mid-July.  The new party leader and prime minister, who will most likely be Boris Johnson, may take office in the final week of July.


Liberal Democrats also under New Leadership


At the same time, the members of the Liberal Democrats elect a new party leader. Outgoing chief liberal Vince Cable, who saw himself as transitional president, had announced his resignation in early May. The succession race will be held between former Energy Minister Edward Davey and former Secretary of State Jo Swinson. Davey is well respected within the party for his charisma and rhetorical talent. The young Scottish Swinson would be the first woman leading the Liberal Party, and is mainly favoured by younger party members. The winner of this race should also be known by end of July.


The Liberal Democrats are also looking forward to reinforcement. Former Labour MP Chuka Umunna declared yesterday his intention to join the Liberals. Thomas Brake, LibDems spokesperson for Europe, welcomed this step euphorically: “The campaign for a second referendum and to stop Brexit has just become immeasurably stronger.” The move of Umunna, who is more of a bishop than a pawn in chess metaphors,  signifies a double victory for the LibDems. Just a few months ago, Umunna, together with ten other deputies, had founded his own party ChangeUK, therefore trying to compete with the LibDems. However, ChangeUK broke apart last week after a disastrous European election campaign. The LibDems have therefore been able to ward off an attack from their own camp and to assert themselves as the only anti-Brexit party in the political centre.


And now? Checkmate?


What do these developments mean for the further course of the Brexit process? The likely next Prime Minister Johnson wants to renegotiate with the European Union. However, both the European Commission and many heads of government of member states categorically exclude any renegotiation. Commission President Juncker said the withdrawal agreement was “not a treaty between two heads of state but between the European Union and the United Kingdom.” Whether Johnson is seriously interested in renegotiation, remains open. Perhaps he only wants to use this argument as a fig leaf to finally enforce a no deal withdrawal.


In this context, the difference between “no deal” and “hard brexit” needs to be stressed. Both terms are often used interchangeably, but mean very different things. In a hard Brexit scenario, although the UK would leave the Customs Union and the Internal Market, there would still be a smooth transition through a multi-year transitional period. It would also guarantee the continued existence of European citizens’ rights in the United Kingdom. “No deal”, however, refers to a withdrawal entirely without agreement and transitional period. In this case, experts expect devastating economic turmoil and great insecurity for citizens and businesses on both sides of the canal.


In the face of increasing polarization on the chessboard of British politics, both the likelihood of an uncontrolled exit and a second referendum have increased significantly. The government and parliament will continue their tough bathe over the final option until 31st October 2019. Who will win checkmate or whether it will remain an eternal draw, cannot be foreseen at this point.


Sebastian Vagt

European Affairs Manager

FNF Expert Hub for Security Political Dialogue