It’s easy to split MPs and the population at large into Leavers and Remainers, motivated primarily by zeal for their respective ideology, but the reality is more complicated. For many in this zombie Parliament, Brexit is merely a vehicle for developing a base of support and winning - or keeping - power.
This weekend’s dramatic developments have made it clear that there are multiple agendas at play, and at least a couple of battles being fought concurrently. Who wins will have an enormous impact on the final Brexit outcome.
Battle 1: Johnsonians vs Partisans
For Johnson, the aim is clear, as it always has been - to secure power and keep it. To do this, he needs to find an elegant way out of the 31 October Houdini knot that leads to victory in an election, whatever that may be.
He’s aiming to get whatever deal he can over the line, and when it comes down to it is willing to take a no deal if that’s what carries the day - all-in-all, this is pragmatic politics. Most moderate conservatives have come on board - a deal, if passed, gives them a victory bump; if blocked, it gives them the satisfaction of a campaign fought on the back of Parliamentary obstinacy and a UK version of ‘clear the swamp’.
Aligned against them are the Partisans. Like the Johnsonians, they are equivocal on the issue of Brexit, even if they express a view, and are more focussed on using it to further their political aims.
For Labour, Brexit is a nightmare, sundering their party, pitting activists and the majority of voters against their traditional heartlands. They’ve avoided taking any position other than to oppose the government at every turn, pushing blame onto them and forcing them to break promises.
If the Tories do deliver Brexit and, Labour hopes, fail to create tangible benefits for voters, the opposition will use that failure to force the government from power with a radical socialist programme. If the Tories fail, Labour hopes the resurgent Brexit Party will split the Leave vote, allowing them to win outright as the Lib Dems’ hardline Remain position loses salience.
Nationalists and unionists are also seeking to use Brexit to further their own ends - for the SNP, to foment anti-Westminster sentiment and strengthen the case for Scottish independence, for the DUP to retain full membership of the UK for Northern Ireland.
These Partisans are not united in their aims, which leads to multiple small-scale skirmishes and sides being changed, but for all of them political calculation is key. Brexit is a vehicle for achieving their agendas, but they avoid a general election while it is still in play because they fear they will not benefit from the polarisation it causes.
Crucially, the Johnsonians are winning big in this battle. Make no mistake, the optics of the last week look very good for the government, even if they appeared to have been defeated yet again - they lose, they win; they win, they win.
Battle 2: Brexit Puritans vs Uber-Remainers
You can tell the true believers on both sides apart because they actually focus on the substance of the issues, and less on the political ramifications. They think that theirs is the key battle, but really it’s only likely to influence the shape of the outcome and no more.
The Brexit Puritans, for whom leaving the EU really is all that matters, are willing to compromise on the Johnson withdrawal agreement because they feel some security that a WTO deal is on the cards in the next phase of negotiations and that there will now be no close relationship with the EU.
They are themselves tolerated by the Johnsonians so long as they tow the line and probably only until victory is secured in the form of a big Tory majority, after which point they can expect to be sidelined again.
Lined up against them are the Uber-Remainers from across all parties, who are determined to block, delay and thwart Brexit. Many of their political careers are about to come to an end and they intend to be on the right side of what they believe will be a historic failure of economics and statecraft.
This battle is live - the risk on both sides is an outright defeat and they know it. Both are willing to play a long game to achieve what they want.
Battle 3: Johnsonians vs Uber-Remainers
This is where the Parliamentary shenanigans and judicial interventions arise. Uber- Remainers team up with Partisans to defeat and embarrass the government, but every time the likes of Anna Soubry or Dominic Grieve opens their mouth, it plays directly into the Johnsonians’ game plan, reinforcing their People vs Parliament narrative and allowing them to take a hard line where otherwise they couldn’t justify it.
Johnson’s deal looks likely to pass as it is, so expect more mischief, amendments, speaker interventions and the like to make it un-passable, as well as court action. This is street fighting, gloves off and nasty.
It may feel like all these battles are coming to a head, but stepping back, there will still be at least a year of this to go, even if the deal is passed. The Brexit Puritans for example will still hope to bring about a WTO exit if the trade agreement negotiated during the transition period isn’t to their liking, while the Partisans will seek to bring Brexit Britain as closely aligned to Europe as they can.
It took many, many years for a bankrupt UK to persuade the continental powers to let it join the common market, and it will outlast the political lives of all of the present actors for the UK to come out of the EU and find a new place in the world. The battles will change, alliances may shift, but this will remain a civil war fought on many fronts between people with different aims and increasingly speaking different languages to one another.
Image credit: NurPhoto / Contributor