Opinion | Brexit: Have you tried turning it off and on again?

Opinion | Brexit: Have you tried turning it off and on again?

One of my favorite TV shows is the British Irish comedy titled The IT Crowd. The plot centers around 2 computer geeks and their slightly incompetent manager working in the IT department of a central London business. The show had a recurring (and rather brilliant) joke - whenever someone called down to IT with an issue, the response was invariably the same and always successful: “have you tried turning it off and on again?” The Conservative party and its leader have tried a number of different solutions but every time it has been met with some kind of historic! failure. The time has come for the last resort - turn it off and back on again, but this time with a new Prime Minister.

To an American audience this strategy might sound bizarre, treacherous even, a group of MPs so disliked the democratically elected Head of Government’s course of action that they told her she had to resign. In fact, the issue of Europe has so often been the cause of the resignation of Conservative Prime Minister’s that it is almost beyond a cliché. Many have drawn comparisons between the demise of Theresa May and that of the Iron Lady herself, Maggie Thatcher. John Major had to resign and fight a leadership contest over the issue of Europe and David Cameron was sent packing the morning after the referendum he called. 

So, what happens next? An historically high number of Conservative MPs have put their hats into the ring to succeed May so the party has decided to change its rules for the leadership contest attempting to quicken the process and avoid the impression of a drawn out vanity project at a time of national political crisis. 10 candidates were successfully nominated on Monday and will face their first task Thursday when voting begins. They must secure at least 17 votes from an electorate of their fellow Conservative MPs to progress to the next stage. Votes will then continue the following week, with the candidate receiving the lowest number of votes being sequentially eliminated until only 2 candidates remain. The final two will have to pack their bags, board the battle bus and head to the country as the Conservative party membership will have the task of choosing between the candidates as the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. The winner will be announced on the 22nd July, take the storied ride down to Buckingham Palace, kiss the Sovereign’s hand and be invited to form a Government. 

I am sure that readers of this website will be aware of Netflix’s hit political drama House of Cards. However, some may not know the online series was in fact based on a British show of the same name and theme. The story follows Chief Whip Francis Urquhart, who is frustrated that he has been overlooked for higher Government positions and engages in the political dark arts to smear colleagues, leak affairs and gradually topple those above him until he is on top. 

What differentiates the two shows is that most of the American version is quite far-fetched in the highly structured American system (getting a VP to leave his role to run for his former job as Governor seems quite unlikely in the modern era). In contrast, however, beyond throwing a journalist of the top of the House of Parliament, the British show could easily mirror the kind of maneuvering, back stabbing and scheming that we will witness over the next 2 months. In last year’s contest Michael Gove was the campaign director for Boris Johnson’s leadership bid. That is, until he declared the morning Boris was about to launch that he did not feel Boris was up to it and that he, Gove, would be running instead. BBC journalist Norman Smith noted at the time that Michael Gove was “plunging a dagger into the back, front, side, head of Boris Johnson.” Gruesome stuff.

Returning to my initial theme, I want to ask the question of whether turning the Brexit process off and on again with a new leader will actually change anything? The reality is that the new PM will face the same problems that May did alongside the added anger and distrust that has accumulated over the last two years. There appears to be three options for the new Prime Minister to pursue, however each has its difficulties.

New Deal
The new Prime Minister could attempt to renegotiate a new deal that satisfies the views in the current Parliament. However, the EU have repeatedly stated they will not renegotiate a new deal and there simply isn’t the time to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement and leave before the next deadline in October. Additionally, MPs are now so entrenched in their respective corners that the arithmetic to find a new compromise solution in Parliament seems almost impossible. Perhaps the Prime Minister could call a general election then, to get more favorable numbers in the commons? That seems equally unlikely as the two main parties have performed so poorly in recent local elections and European Parliament elections so I doubt their members would vote for a General Election and potentially the end of their careers. Candidates will be likely to argue they can get changes to the Irish backstop issue from the EU and then pass a deal. 

Second Referendum
The recent success of the liberal democrats in the European Parliament Elections has got Westminster buzzing about a potential ‘mandate’ for a second referendum. Unfortunately for its supporters, a second referendum is totally abhorrent to the Conservative Party members (most of whom voted for the Brexit Party) and they are ultimately the electorate which will decide between the final two. We have therefore seen almost all the candidates state they will not support a second referendum. 

No Deal Brexit
This represents passing the upcoming deadline without agreeing a new deal. The option has gained popularity with many of the harder brexiteers keen to get a final clean break from the EU. However, the current Parliament has voted so many times to stop the Government allowing a no deal Brexit and there is no sign Parliament will change its mind on that. Some have suggested a Prime Minister could ask the Queen to prorogue Parliament until the October deadline passed in order to stop them amending bills and blocking a no deal Brexit. Involving the Monarch in such a controversial way would be most unusual and could represent a constitutional crisis.

This should show you how uncertain things will be even for a new Prime Minister. Do not forget, following defections and resignations, the Conservatives majority in the House of Commons is razor thin. In fact, according to the Houses of Parliament website, the Conservative Party’s working majority in the Commons currently stands at 0. If even a few members of the Conservative party decide they cannot support the new Prime Minister’s policies they could side with an opposition’s no confidence motion and bring down the Government. 

If nothing else, the leadership election has injected some energy into Westminster. Finally, they get to talk about something other than historic defeats in the commons and May’s drawn-out agonizing demise. The leadership election allows journalists to quiz Michael Gove on his dalliance with class A drugs, Rory Stewart to wander the country taking selfies and Boris to soak up the excitement of his long-awaited coronation as leader. But once this hiatus concludes and the Westminster village sobers up from their vacation to ’leadership-contest land’ do not be surprised if the political landscape looks eerily similar and the debates center on the same issues with the same people arguing the same points at the same people. Perhaps once the dust settles, we may even find ourselves evoking the infamous words of now former Prime Minister Theresa May, “nothing has changed!” 

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Gregor Catto

- International Scholar
- LinkedIn: Gregor Catto

All views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not represent the views of The International Scholar or any other organization.

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