Brexit, A Continuation – Interview with Patrick Le Galès

SASE: You have been studying the British political system for the past three decades, would you say that Brexit was essentially unforeseeable?

Patrick Le Galès: Indeed, not many had foreseen it. We knew three things: 1) the British population remained hostile or indifferent to the EU, and a good deal of the media (in particular those belonging to the anti-European Australian business maverick Rupert Murdoch) have had years and years of brutal anti-European coverage. Comparative qualitative analysis (see Citizens’ Reactions to European Integration Compared: Overlooking Europe. Eds., Sophie Duchesne, Elizabeth Frazer, Florence Haegel, et al. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) precisely identified the dynamics and depth of ignorance and hostility among UK citizens. 2) Inequalities have increased in the UK, the north-south divide has been increasing (from health to income), and a large part of the population, particularly in former industrial towns and cities, felt left alone (no high speed train, lack of investment). One also has to remember that the Cameron/Osborne government elected in 2010 implemented the most drastic program of public services cuts that has been seen in the UK, which disproportionately targeted the bottom half of the income distribution. Part-time workers had already been having a hard time—after 2010, the cuts hit them badly. Local authorities in the north of England lost 40 to 50% of their financial resources because of those cuts, and have to close myriads of grants, libraries, subsidies to NGOs, and programs to support the poor. Cuts were decided in 2010 and 2011, and their effect was in full effect 3 to 4 years later. 3) The Brexit issue has been toxic for the Conservative Party for more than two decades. The electoral success of Brexit leader Nigel Farage in the European election of 2014 put a lot of pressure on the Conservative Party. The anti-European fringe became more vocal and Cameron started the referendum and the negotiation with the EU in order to get rid of them.

Now, these elements did not lead most of us to foresee Brexit. My colleague Colin Hay has written a paper about the amazing set of events that led to Brexit to argue about the limits of predictive social science. At the very least, we did not anticipate Cameron’s gamble, the turn of events that followed, nor the fact that two of Cameron’s close allies, the ebullient Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, would choose to lead the Brexit campaign! Remember, it was reported that up until the last minute, with the arrival of the first results, the “Remain” campaign had no doubt they had won. Not many had seen the Tsunami coming.

Is Cameron to blame for the current crisis?

Oh, yes—he was a risk-taker, a gambler on major issues and completely ignorant of EU affairs, and a mediocre negotiator who overestimated his capacity to convince the British population. Beyond Cameron, the Conservative Party is massively to blame for the current mess… and which is going to last for a long time. Whatever happens—except in the case of the revocation of article 50 or a second referendum where the “remain” option wins—difficult negotiations might last for a decade.

What was the dominant issue of the “leave” vote?

Most work done (and reported, for instance, for the government-sponsored academic think tank “UK in a Changing Europe”) suggests a combination of two issues: “sovereignty” and “immigration,” with some changing priorities over time between the two issues.

In an interview we conducted with Jonathan Zeitlin, the former SASE President states that the British parliament is heavily divided and the political leaders of many parties are in favor of a soft Brexit or no Brexit at all. What is the role of the parliament (and has it changed)?

This is probably one of the most interesting issues of the last six months. Theresa May had to negotiate in different, more or less imbricated arenas: the EU Commission, the cabinet (i.e., with her ministers), the Parliament, the Conservative Party, and the UK (Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales). She often went for positions that made sense in one arena but proved devastating in another (the Irish backstop, for instance). Theresa May started with a cabinet where the balance between soft Brexiters and hard Brexiters was sophisticated. The whole cabinet has gradually become more right-wing and split between a smaller number of Remainers/soft Brexiters, versus hard Brexiters and those in favor of no Brexit. She has chosen to ally herself with the Northern Irish DUP and the right wing of her party (hard Brexit, no Brexit). But after the snap election of 2017, she had no majority in Parliament: she needed the DUP’s 10 members to get a majority. They became a major pressure for the negotiation. And the Conservative Party became more and more divided over the negotiation, particularly after the complete fiasco of the plan she had designed, “the Chequers plan,” which was a clever way to keep control of the Cabinet and the Conservative Party but was a non-starter for the EU and was quickly abandoned. Classically, when the two main parties dominate, and the Prime Minister has a clear majority, the Prime Minister is sometimes described as an elected dictator, as the resources to control Parliament and his or her majority in order to govern are immense.

By contrast, the two major parties have lost significant ground to a number of smaller parties, they are divided along the European question, and the Prime Minister has no majority. As the negotiation became increasingly difficult with the EU, Theresa May became trapped between her attempt to keep the hard Brexiters, the DUP, and some of the no Brexit group on board, and the reality of the negotiation with the EU, where she had to give some ground. She eventually managed to get a deal with the EU, but she miserably failed to win support in the Commons, three times.

Under those extraordinary circumstances, some influential MPs from different groups (in particular, Conservative and Labour) have organized and have managed to regain control of some of the agenda. The speaker, growing into the role,  has seized the opportunity and supported this growing influence of MPs on the debate. The House of Commons has been the theatre of long, extraordinary debates for weeks, and the government has lost a number of votes, hence the nickname “LINA” for Theresa May (‘leader in name only,’ as suggested by a journalist at The Guardian). They have managed to seize the initiative, to explore different scenarios, and to make a no-deal Brexit impossible. There is a clear majority against the hard Brexit (i.e., May’s Agreement) and the no-deal, but no majority for a way forward, in particular around the thorny issue of a second referendum. The Labour Party is nearly as divided as the Conservative Party.

With the last deadline agreed to by the EU, both May and Corbyn are very willing to avoid the European elections, because their parties are so divided that designing a manifesto is proving profoundly divisive. Theresa May has opened a range of talks with the Labour Party in order, maybe, to reach an agreement for a softer Brexit (one of the red lines she never wanted to cross, including a custom union). If no agreement is made, everything is back on the table once again.

What is the least bad solution?

The least bad solution for the UK? There is none at this stage. Some form of agreement with some form of political backing (general election or referendum). And the best solution? Revoke article 50 and remain.