Is Labour Responsible for Brexit?

The economist Professor Simon Wren-Lewis argues today that Brexit is an “entirely Tory failure” for which Labour has no responsibility.  He adopts the same argument as that employed by the polemicist Mr Owen Jones that because Labour has never at any stage had sufficient votes to make a difference to whether, say, article 50 was triggered or not, its votes one way or the other did not matter. Labour could not have removed the government in power, and so is not responsible for what has occurred. (Precisely the same argument has been employed by those who have defended the UK’s participation in the second Gulf War: the United States would have gone ahead anyway regardless of the UK’s position).


Let us assume, arguendo that this is true. Let it be assumed that it would have made no difference whether, from the outset, Labour had campaigned against triggering article 50, had strenuously argued for freedom of movement and remaining in the single market, had campaigned vigorously for a people’s vote, or were now arguing to revoke article 50. Does that make this “an entirely Tory failure”?


Causation, Contribution, and Responsibility

To cause something is to make a difference. Lawyers are familiar with this as the “but for” test for factual causation. “But for X, Y would not have happened.”


To contribute to something is to be one factor which, in combination with other things, was sufficient to cause an outcome.


All causes contribute, but not all contributions cause.


Some necessary conditions make very small contributions to eventual outcomes because so many other things also have to have happened. This is captured in the proverb

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.


The moral question is whether responsibility is determined by causation or contribution? Is it digital (if you cause you’re responsible) or analogue (you’re responsible to the degree you contributed)?



Voting is helpful both in enabling us to see the difference between contribution and causation, and in helping us to understand which matters for purposes of responsibility.


Say there is a first past the post election where there are two candidates. Candidate 1 receives 100,000 votes. Candidate 2  5,000. Candidate 1 is duly elected.


What, in terms of votes, caused the victory?


We could say that 5,001 votes caused his election (as without that number he would not have been elected). This does not refer to any of the actual votes, but to the number sufficient to win.


Or we could say that 95,000 votes caused his election, as if we took that number away he would no longer have been elected. This refers to any set of 95,000 actual votes cast.


No individual vote caused the election of candidate 1. Each contributed.


If, say, the victorious candidate turns out to be a disaster, who is responsible for his election? Can each individual voter who cast a vote in favour argue “I am not responsible as my vote made no difference.” If they could no voter is responsible, as no individual vote made a difference.


The correct position is that each voter is responsible according to their degree of contribution. Children are right when they object to voting that it rarely “makes a difference” but that doesn’t matter for responsibility. Everyone who failed to vote against the successful candidate also made a contribution, even though they too may have made no difference (say only 50 people who could have didn’t vote).


Say the successful candidate had won by a single vote. Also assume that some of the votes were cast in blocks of varying sizes, so that Boss A controlled 100 votes, and Boss B 500 votes. As the result was carried by a single vote, does that mean that Boss A and Boss B were equally responsible? The correct position is no, Boss B made five times the contribution to the outcome that Boss A made, and is proportionately more responsible. The person who cast a single vote in such circumstances may have made a difference to the outcome, but only made a very small contribution, and so has a correspondingly small share of the responsibility.


Labour and Brexit

The answer to the counterfactual question of what would have happened if Labour had opposed Brexit more strenuously is unknowable. Its contribution has however been substantial. Labour MPs overwhelmingly backed the Brexit referendum, they voted under a three line whip to trigger article 50, and have failed to support a second referendum. Labour has made a substantial contribution to Brexit, and as a result shares a large part of the responsibility. Uncomfortably for its supporters, if you have lent your support to one of the party’s responsible, you too have contributed, and are also responsible.


That does not mean that Labour is solely or even largely responsible. The contribution of the government in power has, of course, been greater still. If Theresa May had been hit by a bus in 2016 Brexit would still have happened, but that does not mean that her contribution to it has not been very great. What the relevant degrees of contribution are is, however, incapable of proof, as, unlike with the simple example of voting, we have no method of measurement.










Brexit: The End Game

In a rational world, where actors behave according to their stated preferences, May’s deal should pass next week.


The Withdrawal Agreement we have is non-negotiable, and is *given Brexit* a good deal for the UK. For all those MPs who either support Brexit or although opposing it accept the result of the referendum, the rational course is to vote for it. A healthy majority.


The Political Declaration is all still to be agreed, and although those who favour a closer or more distant relationship with the EU may object to it, they can either argue their case at the relevant time, or support a change after the deal is struck. The Withdrawal Agreement is forever, the future relationship can always be changed.


But, that is not the world we live in. The Labour opposition, although having no substantive objection to the Withdrawal Agreement will vote against May’s deal, and for good party political tactical reasons would oppose any conceivable deal she proposed. As things stand, only a handful of die hard Lexiteers will back her.


A majority of the Conservative “European Research Group” (sic) oppose the Withdrawal Agreement because the guarantee of there being no hard border in Ireland limits the UK’s future ability to enter trade deals with third party states whilst also having no border between the mainland and Northern Ireland. They therefore oppose the only sensible Brexit there will ever be in their lifetimes.


So, if as seems likely at the time of writing, the government fails to pass the Meaningful Vote approving its deal through the Commons at the third attempt, what next?


Avoiding No Deal

There are currently two ways of avoiding a no deal Brexit on Friday 29 March. The first is revocation of its article 50 notification by the UK. This requires legislation (the arguments to the contrary are so feeble as to be unworthy of examination). Although emergency primary legislation can and has been passed speedily in the past (a day suffices), this has been possible because unopposed. Legislation to revoke would be passionately opposed in both the Commons and the Lords. There is also, as things stand, at most around 100 MPs who currently favour this option. Lack of time and political will rule it out.


The second is delay. This requires no legislation, but does require EU27 agreement.  Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council yesterday,  wholly predictably, ruled out the Prime Minister’s request for a short delay for no discernible purpose. Such a short delay, up until the European elections, would only be available if the current deal is approved.


The choice is  the UK’s. It must be the party to make any request, the EU27 will not be making an offer without one. The UK could make a successful request for a longer extension if it were for a purpose (such as a referendum, a General Election, or possibly merely a change in government to pursue a new policy). Such a request would entail the UK participating in European Parliamentary elections, and having MEPs (which will cause problems with reallocated UK seats, but probably not insuperable ones). Any responsible UK government must do this before Friday if the deal is not approved by Parliament.


May’s Position

In the Commons yesterday Mrs May made it clear  that she is not prepared to serve as Prime Minister if Brexit is delayed beyond 30 June. I believe her.


If she refused to put in a request for a long delay she would quickly face a vote of no confidence. There are sufficient Tory MPs who realise that no deal Brexit would be a disaster that this vote would pass. May knows that as well.


Her only course therefore would either be to resign immediately upon losing the Meaningful Vote, recommending a Prime Minister commanding majority support prepared to request such a delay, or (more probably) herself request a long delay in order for there to be a change in Government, whilst agreeing to serve for such time until Conservative leadership elections took place.


It may be that it was for that reason that she made the apparently counterproductive statement last night blaming the Commons for the delay to Brexit, whilst making no apparent appeal to win over waverers. She knows she has lost.


Can any Deal pass?

A long delay doesn’t change the arithmetic or the necessary features of the deal. Any conceivable Withdrawal Agreement looks near identical to this one, and the ERG will oppose it. The opposition will oppose it for the same (good, tactical) reasons it does now. There is no majority possible. in a year’s time employing the same tactics.


What if there were an election and Labour won a majority? Could it pass an alternative Brexit deal? Again, the Conservatives would oppose any such deal on the same basis that Labour opposes this one: because proposed by their opponents. Labour would have as large, possibly larger, group of rebel MPs who opposed the deal from the opposite perspective of the ERG: they favour Remain or something much closer to it than Labour would offer.


So, the only way a deal could have passed would have been for there to have been a Conservative government with such a large majority that it was not dependent on the ERG’s Brexiteers against Brexit. That majority was what May sought in the general election of 2017, and failed to obtain.


The Way Out?

A delay is, however, just a delay. Where will we be in a year?


A future government that wishes to pursue Brexit has two options. First it could (as I thought May would) decouple the Withdrawal Agreement and the Political Declaration, offering Parliament the option of the guidelines it wishes to pursue on the future relationship. Whether this will cause a significant number of opposition votes to change may be doubted. Second it could offer a confirmatory referendum as the price for Parliament approving the deal (with the options being between Remain and Agreed Leave).


If the deal does not pass this week, the Prime Minister will at most be a caretaker by its end. Come what May.