Britain damned if it ‘Brexits’, damned if it doesn’t- finds itself between rock and a hard place

The Brexit Party is not any political force but is a protest vote to warn Conservative and Labour

Britain damned if it ‘Brexits’, damned if it doesn’t- finds itself between rock and a hard place

Ashis Ray

People in Britain want clarity and action on Brexit. That is the clear message in the just concluded elections in Britain to the European Parliament.

In a murderous night for the country’s main parties – the ruling Conservative and opposition Labour – the decree of the electorate decimated the duo for their disunity and opacity respectively and their combined failure to deliver a departure from the European Union as mandated by a referendum nearly three years ago.

And from this verdict rose like a phoenix a six-week old anti-Europe Brexit Party with the largest vote share and seats – ironically a group hostile towards the EU; and at the same time rendered a boost to the pro-Europe Liberal Democrats and the Green Party.

The Brexit Party is not a La Republique En Marche, which within months eased out the established political parties to elect Emmanuel Macron as the French president as well as won a parliamentary majority. It is a protest vote to warn Conservative and Labour.

Five years ago, too, Brexiteers in the garb of the UK Independent Party attracted the largest percentage of votes and emerged with the biggest tally of seats; but Labour and Conservative were close behind and duly restored normalcy in the general and mid-term elections that followed in 2015 and 2017. But now there could be a tectonic shift, if Conservative and Labour fail to get their act together.

While the turnout – as is not unusual in European elections – was low at 37%, Sunday’s results reflected an unabated divide on Brexit that has engulfed Britain since the 2016 referendum campaign. However, there were green shoots of hope for the pro-EU parties if a second referendum occurs – as demanded by the Lib Dems and the Greens to resolve the deadlock. In fact, a majority in Wales, which opted to ‘Leave’ EU in the plebiscite, has in the European elections rallied behind ‘Remain’.

Support for parties insisting on Brexit on World Trade Organisation terms (or a no-deal scenario), namely the Brexit Party (31.6%) and UKIP (3.3%), aggregated 34.9% of vote share; whereas endorsement of crusaders against Brexit or a second referendum, in other words Lib Dems (20.3%), Greens (12.1%), the Scottish National Party (3.5%), Change UK (3.4%) and Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalists (1%), amounted to 40.3%. So, those who voted for Labour (14.1%) and Conservative (9.1%) – split between Europhiles and Europhobes - hold the balance in the event of a re-run.

Britain was not envisaged to hold the recent European elections, since the country was scheduled to exit the EU on March 29. This did not happen because the House of Commons repeatedly rejected Prime Minister Theresa May’s Withdrawal Bill and the UK was compelled to extend the deadline to October 31. It’s the biggest challenge confronting Britain since the Second World War.

From the 1980s onwards the Conservatives have engaged in a civil war over its relationship with Europe. To appease the Eurosceptics, David Cameron, as prime minister, pledged to hold a referendum to settle the conflict in the party’s 2015 election manifesto. Redemption of this promise not only backfired on him, but polarised Britain as never before in modern history.

Tory infighting became a national imbroglio, with families facing off within and cabinet ministers disregarding discipline, including disrespecting the authority of the prime minister. Two days before the European results were declared, May became the fourth Conservative premier in a row to become a casualty of the vexed issue.

She will formally resign on June 7, thus triggering a contest for her successor. Former foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, is the bookmakers’ front-runner. Centrist Conservative MPs are openly opposed to him; but the right-wing rank and file of the party, who collectively enjoy a greater say, seem to adore him.

Johnson proclaimed that, if he wins, Britain will – deal or no deal – exit the EU by October 31. This was predictable, as he needs to provide reassurance to his potential backers. A motion on a no deal Brexit, though, was defeated in the Common. Yet, the Conservatives can only recover the votes they have haemorrhaged to the Brexit Party by arriving at a hardline resolution. Therefore, how Johnson or anyone of his persuasion is going to circumvent the Commons will be a theatre to observe.

Experts are of the overwhelming opinion that a no deal Brexit will be suicidal for the British economy. Furthermore, while the British want clarity and action, a no deal Brexit will at best please half the population and leave the rest livid.

Similarly, a customs union – which would delete the deal-breaking back-stop in Northern Ireland agreed between May and the EU – would be unacceptable to uncompromising Brexiteers. Britain is trapped between a rock and a hard place. It’s damned if it Brexits; it’s damned if it doesn’t.

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