In a State: how Brexit is shaking up the political scene

3 Jul 2018

There is little doubt that Brexit is the biggest political project in a generation. It encompasses such a wide variety issues and complexities, although the tendency by some has been to merely debate these facets at a surface level. This combined with the reality that Brexit will be at the forefront of the minds of UK politicos for many more years still perhaps makes it even more imposing; any other non-Brexit issues seem unimportant or peripheral at best.

 

Nevertheless, there are three notable transmutations taking place within the UK political setting as a result exiting the European Union. None of them are likely to materialise without a ruckus.

 

The first is that the concept of collective responsibility within Cabinet seems to be eroding, a trend exacerbated by the 2017 general election. There have been numerous iterations of ministers straying from official government policy (when there is one).

 

The latess saw Boris Johnson (again) utilising unparliamentary language in response to the concerns of some businesses regarding Brexit. This was then contrasted by Greg Clark, the Business Secretary, who came to the defence of business whilst answering questions in the House of Commons, saying that they are 'entitled to be listened to with respect.'

 

This is likely down to two main drivers. The first is that of Brexit itself. The 2016 referendum, which saw 56% of those who voted opting to leave the EU, failed to produce any clarity as to how, when and who should execute. The latter two aspects have been somewhat settled, but certainly the ‘how’ has not.

 

The government, and the rest of country, appear stubbornly split on what kind of a future relationship the UK should have with the EU, producing the now normative divide between those advocating hard-Brexit and those who favour a soft-Brexit.

 

The second is the weak position of the Prime Minister. While Mrs May has been able to withstand much of the blowback from the disappointments of the election, much of her authority is now rooted in convenience: her departure would not only cause a leadership race but possibly a general election, both of which would eat up time for Brexit negations as well as give Mr. Corbyn an opportunity to challenge for No. 10.

 

Tories who argue that they do not fear the former would surely fear the latter. But as the decimation of collective responsibility continues, the Prime Minister and the cohesion of the government as a whole becomes weaker. That does not bode well for a General Election anyway.

 

The second great change caused by Brexit is in relation to the shift in the separation of powers between the executive and the legislature. The power to make, or withdraw from, international treaties has typically been a sole power of the government by virtue of the royal prerogative.

 

Yet, the Miller case, and the constitutional tug of war that took place when the EU (Withdrawal) Act was being debated, seem to be signs that the executive is gradually losing more ground to Parliament in its policy decisions. A significant trade bill is yet to make another appearance in the House of Commons which may also produce another spectacle. Watch this space.

 Finally, there is the tension between Westminster and the devolved administrations, Scotland in particular. Ever since the Withdrawal Act was introduced, the Scottish government has been clear about its opposition to the distribution of law-making powers post-Brexit, with many contentious ones being retained by Whitehall. It is this which has led some in Scotland to characterise such actions as a blatant “power grab.”

 

Why does any of this matter? All of these distinct ructions within the storm that is Brexit have the potential to shape the future of the State. The weakening of collective responsibility may not stick, however, firstly because it seems only a unique situation stemming from the election, but it is also hard to see how any government would be able to function in the future with a lack of unity over policy.

 

Alternatively, the shifts in the separation of powers and the fate of the devolved administrations could have lasting impacts. The dynamics between Parliament and government in the Brexit context continue an overall trend that has been featuring for some time now. The convention where Parliamentary consent is obtained before deploying armed forces abroad, although recently broken, is an example of this.

 

Specific to Brexit, though, Parliament is now encroaching on the treaty-making powers of the executive in a way that is rather unprecedented. It is possible that this withers away when Brexit is over and done with (if it ever will be). But it is also possible that this new role for Parliament  with regards to international treaties is here to stay, premised on the idea that it implements a greater degree of representative democracy, and thus legitimacy, when shaping the UK’s place in the world post-Brexit.

 

The devolution issue is not definitely not new, even if it is now a corollary of Brexit. Scotland has long argued for more powers to be devolved to address its country-specific interests, and certainly now more than ever since the majority of its electorate voted to remain in the EU. The clash between Westminster and Holyrood is thus not something that will come and go with Brexit. Even after withdrawal from the EU is completed, devolution will probably be a prominent issue during the next election.

 

Even with these recognisable shifts, uncertainty remains the dominant theme. Brexit, along with its constituent parts, is so unparalleled that it is so difficult to predict anything that might happen. Yet, at the same time, whatever does happen will likely have a significant effect on the State, possibly reshaping it into an unidentifiable form. Thus, the dawning of a new political era awaits.

 

 

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