Despite the odds, Theresa May has strategically kept both herself and the aspirations of a soft Brexit in play.
Theresa May came to Parliament on Monday, declaring a Brexit deal was “95% near completion”, ostensibly to update British legislators on negotiations ahead of the 29 March deadline. The announcement followed a volley of criticism from Tory Brexiteers, some verging on the macabre. In an article in the Sunday Times, a Tory backbencher was quoted as saying: “The moment is coming when the knife gets heated, stuck in her front and twisted. She’ll be dead soon.” The PM was also told to “bring her own noose” to a meeting of the 1922 committee, an influential group representing Tory backbenchers, on Wednesday. It is said its leader, Graham Brady, is trying to dissuade the submission of further letters of no confidence in the Prime Minister as they come his way. Forty-eight letters corresponding to 15% of MPs are needed to trigger a leadership contest.
The Prime Minister’s effort to assure the public that negotiations are continuing at pace, veils her greater goal to keep her party together before an inevitable Brexit compromise. May knows only too well that a leadership plot is in fruition. The plotters, a rather disparate bunch, are mindful that the PM has until now strategically fragmented her opposition with position and promises that have concealed incremental compromises with the EU. The plotters have until now opted to bide their time, hoping for a breakdown in the process that could convince a critical mass of backbenchers to make their move. It is apparent that some 48 MPs can be summoned to trigger a vote of no confidence,
After the miscalculation of the 2017 election, which led to the Prime Minister squandering a slim majority for a minority government, May has sought to incrementally dilute her position on Europe. In the heady days of a majority government, albeit of 12, the newly anointed Prime Minister found her ability to manoeuvre limited, a prisoner of Jacob Rees Moggs’ influential European Research Group. Calling an election, was a manoeuvre to shore-up her majority so she could disregard the ERG during important ‘crunch points’ in the negotiations. However, this backfired, squandering a majority to a hung parliament that strengthened the hand of the very Brexit backbenchers she had tried to side line.
Turning a crisis into an opportunity, May brought into her Cabinet troublesome Brexiteers like Michael Gove, who joined Environment and confirmed a ‘confidence and supply’ agreement with the Democratic Unionists. This enabled her to muzzle key Brexit MPs within cabinet convention, joining David Davis, Boris Johnson and Liam Fox. It also permitted her to make Northern Ireland a touchstone issue in the negotiations; the Unionists would guarantee any outcome could not weaken ties with Great Britain. This made the vexed issue of the future border arrangement a circle that could never be squared. Her aim, to allow negotiations to take its course, salami slicing her way to a Brexit that some have termed Brexit in name only. The Chequers Agreement was just that, an acceptance of EU regulations on goods with continued payments and EU judicial oversight, crossing the red-lines carved out in May’s Lancaster Housespeech last year. A speech that had Brexiteers and Remainers gushing with praise.
This balance, to keep her party from committing regicide whilst pursuing a gradual Brexit compromise, may yet backfire. The Conservative Party is going through a thirty-year civil war with itself over Europe. In 1997, in-fighting over the Maastricht Treaty ended in a swing to Labour and its longest spell outside of office in recent history. Cynics may argue the ’97 election was more a Tory loss than a Labour win. A replay of ’97, making way for Labour to settle the European question for another generation, is not on the cards. The Labour leadership is occupied by a Lexiteer (left wing anti-European) who has made his own electoral calculations. Labour needs to gain 34 seats for a majority of one at the next election. Of the 34 seats in England and Wales where they are running closest behind the Conservatives, there are more seats that are estimated to have voted over 60% to leave than to have voted remain. Added to that, the 10 most vulnerable seats to the Tories in the next general election voted on average 63% to leave. If Labour was to embrace a more overtly remain programme, as the centrists would like, then it may undermine any attempt to return to office. The 600,000 plus strong Peoples’ March last weekend certainly provides Remainers with momentum, but short of changing Corbyn’s deeply held policy (or changing Labour’s leader), it is unlikely a Labour government would make any difference for remain voters keen to scupper Brexit. The march was as much against the Labour leadership as it was against the Conservative Party’s policy of disallowing a second referendum.
An election will not change the outcome. Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer would be in a similar position to the government, struggling to reconcile the irreconcilable. At any rate, his leader remains wedded to the outcome of the last referendum. The UK is heading towards a constitutional crisis that may only be settled with another public vote. This is fraught with dangers for both established parties, yet it remains the only option available if and when Parliament votes down any agreement that comes from Europe. And all bets are on a defeat in the House. There is a chance Parliament decides to accept the agreement and it’s a slim chance, Theresa May hinted on the basis this may be done. She said on Monday that the transition period, euphemistically called an ‘implementation period’ may be longer in duration than expected and during this stage a backstop to the backstop would remain in place, in effect keeping the whole of the UK in the Customs Union until a final deal is struck on a future trading agreement. Brexiteer’s fear this to be a mechanism to delay Brexit for an indeterminate period.
An additional one-year delay will maintain the status quo until the end of 2021. It would certainly require an additional payment on top of the £39 billion divorce bill. Not to mention accepting continued membership of the Single Market until that point, including the free movement of people and jurisdiction of the EU court. And it would mean the UK would be unable to negotiate trade agreements independent of the EU. The former Brexit minister Steve Baker, a leading Eurosceptic, says more than 40 Conservative MPs would be prepared to voteagainst the prime minister, this means Labour would have to be convinced to drop its impossible six tests and vote with Theresa May, an increasingly implausible prospect. EU Chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has already stated Britain can reverse the Brexit process even during the transition period, in April he declared, “we remain open, there are no dogmas.” Brexiteers fear kicking the can down the road will lead to a never-ending road.
Every week remains treacherous to the beleaguered Prime Minister. Yet, despite the odds, she has strategically kept both herself and the aspirations of a soft Brexit in play. After two years, Brexit seems less inevitable than it once seemed.
J Patel – Editor and Head of Politics