Where inconsistencies emerge in a prevailing narrative, the media have a habit of dismissing them in one of two ways. If the actions of an individual or institution cannot be labelled a coincidence, they will often be passed off as incompetence. Likewise, if bad behaviour or decision making cannot be classified as incompetence, then they will promptly be filed under unforeseen coincidence.
Analysis is invariably kept within these tight parameters, meaning little to no credence is given to the possibility that something untoward – conspiratorial even – may be going on.
Brexit is one area where inconsistencies and oddities have been prevalent throughout the process. To demonstrate, here are four examples of where either coincidence or incompetence may not be the whole story.
The Make up and Triggering of Article 50
It was in a three part series published in October and November 2017 (Article 50 Revisited: Has the UK’s Secession from the EU been Years in the Making?) that I first began to question the political timeline that lead up to the EU referendum and the subsequent triggering of Article 50.
To be clear, the introduction of Article 50 as part of the Lisbon Treaty was the first time in the European Union’s history that a legal pathway for vacating the bloc had been established. Prior to this there was no official mechanism for leaving the union. By coincidence or otherwise, Article 50 came to fruition at the same time that the EU were publicly seeking a greater consolidation of power and the building of an ‘ever closer union‘.
Misgivings over Article 50 from German and Dutch government representatives, in the manner that it would ‘only encourage secession‘, were ignored.
As I remarked two years ago:
There were seemingly no objections in the highest echelons of the EU at creating a clause that would allow member states the right to break away and become independent from the union. When you consider the decades of work that have gone into building the EU into the supranational state it is today, it makes it all the more peculiar for Article 50 to not carry any substantive conditions for withdrawal. All the way down to a member state not even being required to explain why exactly they might wish to leave.
Lord John Kerr, the author of Article 50 and now a former member on the Executive Committee of the Trilateral Commission, cited the danger of Austria moving towards the far right in 2002-2003 (when work on the clause began) as a reason for its creation:
It seemed to me very likely that a dictatorial regime would then, in high dudgeon, want to storm out. And to have a procedure for storming out seemed to be quite a sensible thing to do — to avoid the legal chaos of going with no agreement.
The far right swing in Austria did not happen. But Article 50 survived regardless.
After the EU referendum, Theresa May’s government was ordered by the Supreme Court to ask Parliament’s permission to invoke Article 50. This did not prove as an opportunity for the House of Commons to block invocation, rather it received overwhelming support with 494 MP’s voting to approve the third reading of the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill. Those in favour included a mix of Conservative and Labour politicians, including shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer, Chuka Umunna, Tom Watson, Dominic Grieve and Anna Soubry. The only dissenting Tory of the 122 who voted against was Ken Clarke. 52 Labour MP’s also rejected the bill, disobeying a three line whip imposed by party leader Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn had initially endorsed amendments to the bill but in the end chose to support it unamended.
Consider at this point the current furore over Brexit in Westminster. A lot of those who approved triggering Article 50 have ever since been admonishing the government for their chaotic handling of withdrawal negotiations and for having no plan on how to leave the EU. But when MP’s signed off on the withdrawal bill they did so without any information from the government over what sort of Brexit deal they would be seeking from the EU, and on the understanding that if a deal could not be ratified that the default position was to vacate the union with no withdrawal agreement. Weigh up as well that every MP who supported the bill was entirely aware that once the Article 50 process began, the two year countdown on negotiations would also begin.
As I queried back in 2017, when you had the establishment clamouring to express the damage Brexit could do to the UK economy, is it not reasonable to suggest that a stronger level of resistance over sanctioning Article 50 should have been expected? Why were no demands made of the government to publish documentation detailing their negotiating position? There was not the widescale rebellion that we have subsequently witnessed under both Theresa May and Boris Johnson. Was the fear of a backlash from the electorate enough to bring them into line? Perhaps, but those who emboldened the government two and half years ago were the first to begin dissenting when Theresa May brought back a prospective deal. Ever since then they have voted against the government on multiple occasions, leading to Article 50 being extended two times (and possibly a third later this month). But no matter how many extensions are implemented, the countdown remains.
MP’s kicked off a process that can now only be stopped by revoking Article 50. This could be done either unilaterally or by presenting the option to the public through a second referendum.
The withdrawal process could have been stopped by the establishment before it ever began. But those MP’s who speak out against it today are the same MP’s who set it into motion.
Rise of the Brexit Party
Just weeks after they were formed, the Brexit Party took the largest share of the vote in May’s European elections. In response I detailed how the rise of the party came about in between the original Article 50 deadline of March 29th 2019 and the second cut off point of April 12th.
Nigel Farage was pronounced leader on March 21st, the day Article 50 was extended until April 12th. When a second extension was granted on April 11th – this time by six months lasting to October 31st – Farage officially launched the party on the day the UK was due to leave the EU. A mere coincidence?
The party then secured 30.5% of the vote in the EU elections, and ever since then have been gearing up for what they call a ‘Brexit General Election‘. Their website has a clock ticking down to October 31st and a strap line beneath that reads, ‘Countdown to Brexit / Countdown to Betrayal?‘
It is often argued that the political system, flanked by the outside influences of financial backers, lobbyists and non-governmental organisations, generates the political parties and leaders that the electorate vote for, so as to keep people invested and ensure ‘the house always wins‘. If so, then the establishment is certainly not standing in the way of the Brexit Party. On the contrary, they stand to be the main beneficiaries of another Article 50 extension.
Independent media takes every opportunity to opine that the establishment is not only dead set against Brexit, but that they will never allow it to happen. Yet the political system in which it supposedly controls has created a unified voice in favour of a ‘clean break‘ from the European Union, one that is ready and waiting to hoover up millions of votes off the back of the ‘Great Brexit Betrayal‘. Is this incompetence? Or could it be by design to ensure that in the end the Brexit Party is placed into a position of power prior to the UK’s exit?
No Remain Party
On the opposite side of the Brexit spectrum are several political parties that either want to stop the UK’s separation from the EU entirely or hold a second referendum. If in power prior to withdrawal, the Liberal Democrats would unilaterally revoke Article 50 and keep Britain within the bloc. Labour want to renegotiate a Brexit deal and then put it back to the electorate, with their party split between factions that want to stop Brexit and those who want the original 2016 referendum result to be respected. Then there is the Scottish National Party who do not want to leave the EU but have stopped short of calling for unilateral revocation of Article 50. Instead they are championing a second referendum.
Whereas the Brexit Party are united behind one common objective, opposition to Brexit is splintered and racked with division. This was evident in May’s European Elections. Had we seen the creation of a Remain Alliance (spearheaded by Labour and the Lib Dems) to challenge Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, perhaps the latter’s victory would have been in question. But internal quarrelling and a lack of a coherent message amongst the opposition allowed the Brexit Party a clean run at the ballot box. Was this the intention?
Those same divisions are still prevalent today amidst the spectre of an early general election.
Opposition Stalling on vote of no confidence in Johnson
Remember back in January when Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn tabled a motion of no confidence in Theresa May’s government? Corbyn marginally lost the vote but instigated it after May’s Brexit withdrawal agreement was defeated in Parliament. His argument was that May’s ‘zombie‘ administration had lost the right to govern. At the time May had around 315 MP’s in the Conservative Party.
Contrast that with Boris Johnson today – the Tories are down to 288 after the whip was withdrawn from over a dozen MP’s following their refusal to vote with the government on Brexit legislation. The Tory party is in a far weaker position now than it was in January.
Yet instead of attempting to remove what could equally be described as a ‘zombie‘ administration, Labour and fellow opposition parties have metaphorically sat on their hands and allowed Johnson to remain as Prime Minister.
Aside from this, Johnson has called for an early general election, only for the opposition to deny him the opportunity. Jeremy Corbyn’s position has been that he will only support an election if the threat of a no deal Brexit is ‘taken off the table‘ first.
The Benn Act, passed by Parliament in September, compels Boris Johnson to seek an extension to Article 50 if no agreement with the EU is reached by the time of the EU summit this week. Johnson has repeatedly said he will not ask for any extension.
We have a situation here where the man who has openly said he will not comply with the will of parliament has also had his decision to prorogue parliament deemed unlawful by the Supreme Court. Taken together, is this not grounds to call for a vote of no confidence? Apparently not. And so Johnson remains the man that the opposition trust to go to Brussels and bring back another extension to Article 50. Just more incompetence?
I would argue that the reason there has been no attempt to oust Johnson goes back to how there is no unified position over Brexit within the opposition. Had we seen a vote of no confidence, Johnson likely would have lost, which would have allowed Jeremy Corbyn to try and form a temporary ‘government of national unity‘. Labour insist Corbyn should lead any such government. The Lib Dems and several former Conservative MP’s, however, have refused to support this, meaning attempts to form an alternative administration would fail.
Twice the opposition said no to a pre October 31st general election, and have instead restricted all remaining options to remove Johnson before the end of the month. Their actions have ensured that he remains in office.
My position has been that there are two possible outcomes from here – leave the EU on October 31st amidst legal wrangling, or implement a further extension to Article 50 that will invite the Brexit Party into a position of power. Either way, I believe Brexit will happen.