Saturday, 26 March 2016

How Brexit could make UKIP the largest party in the UK

As the the prospects for the 'Leave' campaign winning on June 23rd rise comes the realisation that this result can only but strengthen UKIP perhaps making them, for a time at least, the largest party in the opinion polls. Parallel, to this, the attitude of some on the left in still wanting to leave, or being uninterested in the outcome, is likely to be its biggest strategic mistake since it supported the 'winter of discontent' strikes in 1979 that helped Mrs Thatcher gain power.

This ostensibly unlikely outcome seems much more likely if you consider one highly plausible scenario.

Directly after a vote to 'leave', there will then be a debate on what future relationship the UK should seek to negotiate with the EU,  outside of the EU. Essentially there are two options - do we stay within the Single Market (often also called the internal market) and be like Norway and Switzerland, or do we, as Boris Johnson appeared initially to suggest, be like Canada and merely seek a free trade deal.

These two different options have, unknown to perhaps the vast bulk of voters, much bigger implications for the life and future politics of British people than whether we actually stay in the EU or leave in a formal sense. Remaining in the single market is much closer to the status quo than leaving it.

If we 'remain' in the Single Market we are, as has been widely suggested, still going to be bound by a high proportion of the EU legislation as at present, and also we are quite likely to have to pay much the same net amount to the EU as we do now. The difference will be that we will have no direct say over the laws that bind us within the EU's democratic framework.

What perhaps is woefully misunderstood, and will lead to political problems later, the UK would have to accept the same labour market rules as we do now - our control over immigration from other parts of the EU would remain as it is at the moment. These are the conditions that face Norway and Switzerland, and a lot of the Swiss are wishfully thinking otherwise to their displeasure.

Any hopes that this might be loosened by a surge of euroscepticism in other EU countries is likely to be dampened by the fact that the Eastern European and southern European countries are likely to oppose this. They will identify it as Treaty change, thus effectively thwarting any prospects of the free movement principle being abandoned or seriously altered for the forseeable future. Such a Treaty change will not be approved this side of some political nightmare that we really should not wish for. It's not so much (as bad as it would be) that the break-up of the EU would be the nightmare, but rather it is the sort of hellish circumstances that could trigger this event.

So after the leave vote the UK Government (led by some Tory or other) would have to get Parliamentary approval for a 'leaving' package to be agreed with the EU. Inevitably, whatever happens, the Government will be bitterly attacked by UKIP (and Tory fellow travellers) for negotiating a bad deal. What seems to be likely is that there will be a majority in this UK Parliament for a deal which involves staying in the Single Market (internal market).  Labour, a small number of MPs apart, would support that, the SNP would certainly support that, and so would a substantial proportion of Conservatives. It would indeed be interesting if Boris Johnson or whoever else became leader tried to negotiate leaving the single market - a great split would appear within the Conservatives that may even produce an early general election.

But so long as the British Government negotiated a package involving staying in the internal market then UKIP would become an emboldened, much strengthened, focus of opposition to remaining in the Single Market. It would campaign vigorously that the so-called elite will have 'betrayed' Britons, who would discover that under the Single Market so little would change. They would probably  gain MPs at the next General Election, quite probably at by-elections before then.

For left wingers wanting to leave it would be turkeys voting for Xmas. Back in the 1970s the hard left fought hard to smash the social contract, an agreement between the then Labour Government and trade unions over wage levels. The tactic was successful, but only gave a powerful push to a strategic shift to the right in British politics. They helped to discredit the centre left thinking that they (the hard left) were the alternative. They were in cloud cuckoo land of course, because the hard right was the electorally favoured alternative to the centre-left.

And much the same today as George Galloway etc urges a vote to Leave. I am saddened by this disavowal of the politics of internationalism in a world that desperately needs more international cooperation, not less of it. The only bright spot in this campaign for me has been the approach of Caroline Lucas, to whose words people should listen carefully on this subject. See for example and also

Of course the large majority of the left don't want to leave the EU. But unfortunately many of them are not very strong-willed on the subject, and Labour has a leader who certainly gives the appearance of failing to understand that he is making a terrible strategic blunder by not giving the highest priority to fighting to stay in. Some on the left are beginning to realise that opting to leave might not be such a good idea after all. But just thinking that something is not such a good idea is not good enough. We need some stronger passion than that. Alas the momentum seems to be with UKIP, the arch-climate sceptics themselves.


  1. Dave
    I found this post of yours very useful.
    "Remaining in the single market is much closer to the status quo than leaving it."

    You prompted me to check the 2013 Select Committee evidence.

    If I get the gist correctly, you seem exactly right. Tory 'eurosceptics' always liked to distinguish 'The Common Market' that many of the older ones voted for back in the 70s, from 'The EU' we have now. It will be interesting if the light dawns on them and on the bulk of UK public.



    1. Absolutely. Indeed Gus O'Donnell, the former Cabinet Secretary explains how negotiations would take a long time and how he assumes that remaining in the Single Market would be the basis for negotiations. This, as my argument suggests, will produce a situation where UKIP et al were campaigning against this option (in order to get control over immigration from EU countries) and expanding their support in the context of a split within the Conservatives. Some Brexiteers may claim that it is possible to still be in the single market and have control over immigration, but this is a fantasy - the whole point of the single market is to give the same conditions for all member states. That would be the end of the Single Market - or at least its attentuation for all members in the context of Treaty change being needed. Most EU countries would avoid this idea (having multiple referenda across the EU) like the plague even if they wanted to change the whole basis of the Single Market - which they don't.