The next general election
The question of when the next General Election is to be held looms over the post-referendum political world. It could be soon, although because of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act two thirds of the House of Commons would have to pass a motion permitting an election less than five years after the last General Election. As this Tory government has a working majority of only sixteen, such a motion would need to be supported by Labour. Whether that would suit Labour at present is extremely dubious because the present chaos within the Party would almost certainly lose them many seats. But the other parties, including the Tories, would probably have many MPs against an early general election because there is a good chance that they could be punished by the voters either because they were for or against being a member in the EU. There are also many MPs with small majorities who would not welcome an election because an MP with a small majority is always vulnerable to defeat. With nearly 4 years of this Parliament to run such MPs might well vote against an early election. More generally, having run a general election campaign little more than a year ago, parties may be short of money to run another.
If there was sufficient support for an early election there would be a halfway plausible reason for having one. As Cameron has resigned and a new Tory PM is to be appointed by the Autumn, a new election could be represented as giving the new Tory regime electoral legitimacy. But it would be a rather weak argument because there is no recent precedent for governments calling a general election when prime ministers are changed during the course of a Parliament. It did not happen when Gordon Brown took over from Blair, Major succeeded Thatcher, or when Callaghan replaced Wilson. It would also be wholly exceptional for a general election to be called so early in a Parliament (this one runs until 2020) for the purpose of validating a new PM. Alternatively, a new General Election might be called when possible defections, resignations or death robbed the Tory Party of a majority at some time in this Parliament..
But if an early election is not called it is not inconceivable that the negotiation period could stretch deep into this Parliament or even past the 2020 date prescribed by the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. Implausible? Well, the first two years are almost certainly accounted for if Article 50 is activated and it would not be that difficult to envisage Europhile British politicians colluding with EU politicians to string the matter out in the hope that time would change the political atmosphere in Britain sufficiently to allow another referendum on whether Britain should leave the EU to be held and won by the Europhile side.
Other possibilities would be the election of a government comprised of one or more parties which stood on a platform of accepting a draft agreement on offer from the EU which would effectively re-make Britain a member of the EU, or of Britain withdrawing its application to leave or Britain re-applying to join the EU after leaving it.
Because parties would have campaigned at an election for such policies any of these options could be implemented without a referendum.
What should happen?
Britain should not activate Article 50. Instead the 1972 Communities Act (the Act which gave legal force to Britain’s membership of what became the EU) should be repealed . That would make the British Parliament sovereign again. Just to make sure there is no legal confusion it would probably be advisable to enact a British sovereignty act to ensure that British judges cannot attempt to subvert Parliament’s intentions. If the Europhile majority in Commons refused to do this there would be a most serious constitutional crisis, the sort of crisis over which civil wars are fought. I doubt whether the Commons would risk that. At best such behaviour might well fracture parties and would sour the relationship between the electors and politicians for a long time.
The House of Lords is more problematical. They could delay any legislation for around two years before the Parliament Act could be used to force the legislation through. That would be a very dangerous path to go down for the Lords because it would probably result in their abolition. However, many peers might consider that a price worth paying and quite a few both inside and outside of the Lords might see it as a solution to the anomaly of an unelected chamber within the British political system.
Having repealed the 1972 Act and put any other necessary legislation on the Statute Book, Britain would then be in the position of any other country outside the EU. They would negotiate with the EU on an equal basis without the EU controlling the agenda. If the EU refuses to play ball Britain should simply trade under the WTO rules and conclude trade treaties as and when they are available and advantageous to Britain.
Would the EU be obstructive? I doubt it because (1) they have a massive trade surplus with the Britain; (2) Britain is a partner in many a pan-Europe enterprise (for example, Airbus, the European Space Agency); (3) Britain is a very useful partner to have on the world stage because of her senior position in many international bodies (permanent member of the security council, important member of the IMF, World Bank, Nato, G7, G20); (4) there are many more people from the other EU states in Britain than there are Britons in the other EU countries and (5) the Republic of Ireland would be ruined if any serious protectionist measures aimed at Britain were enacted by the EU. Most WTO tariffs are low but where they are more substantial such as those attached to cars (around 10%) the odds are that the EU would rapidly make adjustments to those WTO tariffs because they export so many cars to the UK. The idea that nothing can be done quickly in terms of deciding the level of tariffs or their absence is obvious nonsense if both sides want an agreement.
Britain’s negotiators, whether politicians or public servants, must be willing to play hardball. What is all too often not mentioned when tariffs being imposed by the EU are discussed is that Britain can impose reciprocal tariffs which would (1) bring in substantial amounts of tax and (2) result in more British production going to the domestic British market. The argument that Britain’s export trade to the EU represents a much larger part of the British GDP than the other EU states’ exports to the UK, and consequently the EU would not be damaged as much as the UK through a tariff war does not hold water. This is because British exports to the EU are not spread uniformly throughout the EU or throughout individual members states’ economies. Hence, the impact of putting up barriers to British exports would be very damaging to particular industries and areas of EU member states. Think of the blow it would send to the German motor industry.
The repealing of the 1972 Act and what flows from it would have the great advantage of simplicity and above all speed.
Delay is the enemy of those who want the wishes of the British people as expressed in the referendum to be honoured, and the servant of those who wish to prevent Britain truly leaving the EU.
The longer the delay the more opportunity for fudge and manipulation by those with power. Do not be misled by politicians like Boris Johnson who led the Leave campaign and who will almost certainly be at or near the head of the government. Their embracing of the Leave campaign does not mean they will deal honestly with the British who voted to leave because they thought that Britain would become truly sovereign again and above all be able to control immigration.
Already there have been British politicians who supported leaving the EU who are saying that immigration will not be massively changed. For example, Daniel Hannan a Conservative MEP and prominent Leave campaigner told presenter Evan Davis on the BBC’s Newsnight programme:
“Frankly, if people watching think that they have voted and there is now going to be zero immigration from the EU, they are going to be disappointed.”
and admitted that the price for remaining in a common market with the EU would be free movement of labour. Boris Johnson himself has written a piece in the Telegraph saying that access to the single market would be available to the UK after Brexit. That implies he would accept free movement of Labour for it is doubtful that the EU would grant free access without mobility of Labour.
It is also noteworthy that the line on immigration most pushed by Leave campaigners during the referendum campaign was not that immigration would be reduced dramatically per se, but that an Australian-style points system would be introduced. If such a system was used without a cap on numbers coming each year, immigration could soar. Imagine that 100,000 foreign nurses a year meet the criteria for nurses in the UK and want to come to Britain, a points-system without restrictions on numbers would potentially allow all 100,000 to come in.
One thing is certain amongst the current political upheaval in Britain, the Europhiles (who can come in Eurosceptic clothing) will not lie down and accept the verdict of the referendum.
Those who want Britain to be an a sovereign state again must be ever vigilant as to what is being done by politicians both here in Britain and abroad. There is a real danger of the Leave victory being stolen from us.