The phenomenon of dynamic equilibrium is one that we are all familiar with even though we may not think about it much. When you add sugar to a glass of water the sugar dissolves. All looks calm. The structure holds. And yet, below the surface, many millions of atoms are moving frantically all of the time – all to keep the sugar water standing still.
Our politics is in a period of dynamic equilibrium. The atoms zoom, creating mini-dramas almost every day. But the structure holds, static, for now.
The Government has managed to defeat its rebel soft-Brexiteers’ amendment to the Trade Bill – which would have kept the U.K. in a Customs Union should we fail to reach a deal by March. The Government has also avoided defeat to its hardline ERG, by surrendering to this caucus’ demands on tariff collection. Remainers and Brexiteers alike have walked out of the Government to vote against the Government. And yet, to borrow one of Mrs May’s favoured phrases, ‘nothing has changed’.
Why? Because there is not yet sufficient imbalance for anyone to actually win. There’s not enough sugar in the glass to saturate the water. The ERG has the numbers to push for a hardening of Brexit but not the numbers to produce and prosecute their own alternative plan. The Remainer Tories do not have the numbers to radically soften Brexit but do have the power to face down a purist government by Farageistas.
Meanwhile, Labour – for reasons of politics – refuses to speak decisively to their own plan for Brexit. Calling for a ‘jobs first Brexit’ is a work of triangulation that Blair would be proud of. It allows Labour to speak to its different constituencies – blue collar Brexiteers and white collar liberals – without alienating either group too much. And, after all, with the Government tearing itself apart, why should Her Majesty’s Opposition get in the way? That’s politics, folks. The fact that this also allows Jeremy Corbyn to respect both his thirst for power and his lifelong Euroscepticism is also a bonus.
So, what happens now? Well dynamic equilibrium sometimes tips out of balance when a new, active ingredient is added to the mix. That’s where the Electoral Commission’s findings on malfeasance and conspiracy in Vote Leave come in. Whatever you think about the outcome of the referendum, the brazen flouting of electoral law (to the tune of almost £1 million, a staggering sum in U.K. politics) is a bit of a worry.
This is not going to overturn the referendum result. There is no legal means to do so and no political will either. But it has lit something of a fire under some Tory MPs whose preference was Remain but whose practice – up to now – has been dependable loyalty. Witness Sir Nicholas Soames’ demand that we ‘blow up’ Brexit in light of these revelations. These Tories, in league with more ideological colleagues such as Justine Greening, are beginning to coalesce around the idea of a vote on the final deal once it comes. This ‘People’s Vote’ would give the public the options of whatever deal Mrs May achieves, remaining in the EU after all or – perhaps – a third, no deal outcome. It would be messy. But many believe it is the only way of resolving our current stalemate.
Whether this is the idea that resolves our dynamic equilibrium, whether yet again it is a referendum that gets our MPs out of the mess that they are in, will ultimately depend on Labour. If they were to unite with Tory rebels, a plebiscite could be secured. Keep an eye on senior Labour spokespeople who increasingly can be found telling TV interviewers that ‘a People’s Vote isn’t likely, but we can’t rule it out’. They are trying to remix the solution.