Strategic lessons from MPs' failed attempt to stop no-deal Brexit

For a while the Parliamentary coalition against no deal had real power, but they made one fatal mistake, says strategic negotiator Paul Alexander.

by Paul Alexander
Last Updated: 16 Dec 2019
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Food for thought

Power is both fluid and temporal. It comes and goes, and you get peak moments to use it. Take British politics. Barely a month ago the government had lost effective control of the Commons. An ‘anti no-deal coalition’ of cross-party MPs, including 21 Tory rebels, had assembled to prevent the UK crashing out of Europe on 31 October. 

They used their fluid, and temporal, power to potent effect passing the Benn Act. Whatever the election outcome, they will say they stopped scarcity of medical supplies, panic in the shops and civil unrest. Christmas would have been bleakly Dickensian otherwise. 

A seeming success, but was it the best use of their power? After all, they had the numbers to bring down the government with a no-confidence vote any time they liked. Alongside this, the 2015 Fixed Term Parliament Act handed parliament power both to call, and to time, an election. They could have thwarted any Brexit deal theoretically until 2022, or amended the existing one with concessions. That was a lot of Parliamentary power - no wonder Johnson wanted to prorogue it. 

A strategic miscalculation

Effectively the coalition was in a strategic negotiation, where calculating the power and fundamental interests of both sides is crucial. They assumed their opposition was fine with no deal, which wasn’t an unreasonable assumption - the stoically anti no-deal May and Hammond had been replaced with narratives of breaking free and dying in a ditch after all. 

Except neither a deal nor an exit without a deal was actually in Johnson’s fundamental interest, which was to have a big Commons majority and the job security that goes with it. To achieve that, he needed every Leave vote he could muster, and no deal wouldn’t help (imagine an election after even a fraction of the disruption anticipated by the government’s own Yellowhammer document - not a risk worth taking).

Neither would passing a deal. He could have lost crucial Leave voters unhappy with that version of Brexit, especially if tailored with parliamentary concessions. Other committed Leave voters might instead now have returned their focus to other issues post-deal. Better to show he could get it done, oven-ready, if only the Parliamentary arithmetic was more compliant. Hence playing for a pre-Brexit deal election.

If that was his fundamental interest, what was his power? Pretty thin. Perhaps Johnson’s greatest leverage was actually getting an EU deal. Despite his posturing he could have got one anytime he liked, even without no-deal threats. 

Tusk and Juncker were desperate for one, with legacies rapidly reducing to a singular Brexit epitaph. The incoming EU leadership feared truculent Brexit party MEPs disrupting the European Parliament and blocking budgets. Any deal would have done which met their ultimate redlines: protecting EU import standards and ensuring peace on the island of Ireland. 

Understand your own position

Was the MPs’ coalition built on any deeper interests? They shared misgivings about global deals being better than staying in the customs union. Even deeper, many desired an end to the polarised politics making them aliens within their own parties. Most of all, they wished for an end to Brexit divisions corroding our national life. 

They had the power to translate these deeper interests into action - at minimum to soften any Brexit deal with workers’ rights or by ringfencing the NHS; at most by pushing further for a customs union Brexit, or a second referendum. 

Why didn’t they? They had a different kind of power problem, a lack of legitimacy, which is a major currency of power in politics. Most Leavers, and many Remainers, are still not sold on the legitimacy of another referendum. Neither did the coalition have clear popular legitimacy for a customs union Brexit, even if many felt it was the best option to safeguard interests and heal divisions. 

Like any complex negotiation, the internal one can be as important as the external. Did the coalition discuss their real power, or the suggestion that the government was bluffing on both deal and no deal? If so, they could have called Johnson’s bluff and forced him to pass the deal with amendments of their choosing.  

Or they could have been much bolder and created the power to bridge the legitimacy gap: they could have let no deal happen. 

Calling bluffs

If Johnson and his allies really believed in no deal, bring it on. This would have been a risky strategy, given the stark warnings of chaos from Nobel Prize winners down. They would have been branded irresponsible by many for sure. 

However, the coalition could have mitigated the risk by pre-emptively confirming with the EU how withdrawal Article 218 would be interpreted, setting up a week of chaos followed by an immediate, temporary, return to the customs arrangement. It would have required asking the EU to have cojones of steel when 31 October arrived, to look beyond the short term, as challenging Brexit economic narratives was in their interest too. 

Within days they could have passed a no-confidence motion, and installed a caretaker government. If insufficient MPs could back Corbyn, even temporarily, he would have had to step aside for a conciliatory candidate like Hilary Benn. Even mild disruption could have brought more profound consequences. Many Leavers would decide it wasn’t Project Fear after all, and the experts were right. If so can we trust the Tories on global deals, our NHS, or dare we say our chickens? 

The entire Brexit economic narrative, down to posters on buses, would have been undermined. The likely vilification of leading Brexiteers might have been coruscating. Mogg’s funereal attire would have been fitting, and Raab’s Dover-Calais comment sampled into trippy Ibiza anthems. The Conservative party might have dumped the ERG project, returning to the political centre. Either that or face being routed at the next election. 

A missed opportunity

Author Catherine Aird once suggested that "If you can’t be a good example, at least be a horrible warning". A short no-deal crisis might have been just that, bringing popular legitimacy to rethink the Brexit project, or at the very least negotiate a soft Brexit, addressing sovereignty and immigration concerns without economic risks, as the best compromise to heal divisions. 

Any subsequent election might have focussed on domestic issues, without a Brexit dividing line. The main parties could have returned to being wide churches, and all the more appealing for it. That’s not where we are now. 

You can win a negotiation just by shaping the agenda, and ideally the interests, of the other side. It can be the most elegant and seamless of victories. 

By convincing them no-deal was a credible threat, Johnson got MPs to spend their power where he wanted them to. They even granted him an election with timing that only suited him, without even amending his hard Brexit bill. 

A Conservative majority would firmly return power to the executive from parliament: a UK prime minister, with an obedient majority, is amongst the greatest concentrations of power in the West, strong enough not just to get a hard Brexit done, but to survive future no-deal or other economic crises. 

Power is not just fluid, and temporal, it is created. Paradoxically, the coalition might have created power, and legitimacy, by doing the opposite of what they did. It’s a salutary lesson to understand the power you hold and use it wisely, because it may not be there for long. 

Paul Alexander runs a strategic negotiation practice @Negoziate

Image credit: ©UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/ Stephen Pike via Flickr (Creative Commons)


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