Not a good year for Theresa May. It was always a fantasy to believe that having left the EU the UK could continue to enjoy frictionless trade with its erstwhile partners. This benefit is only possible inside the Single Market and Customs Union. That said, the current Brexit debacle is in large measure of her own making. From the start of her tenure her approach to Brexit has been characterised by misjudgements, disingenuity and stubbornness.
These traits where on display the day she became Prime Minister and declared ‘Brexit means Brexit’. Having missed that opportunity to reach out to Remainers she further boxed herself in with her ‘red lines’ Lancaster House speech – just a week before the Supreme Court told her the government’s attempt to by-pass Parliament was unlawful. Even worse was the monumental error of judgement to trigger Article 50 before drawing up – on the basis of detailed studies – realistic negotiating objectives. Instead, by allowing appeasement of her zealots to dominate, she locked herself into an end date and at a stroke forfeited leverage in the negotiations.
Theresa May’s unpropitious characteristics were again on display in her decision to call an election in June 2017. During the campaign her weaknesses were exposed, her gamble rebounded spectacularly forcing her to enter the Brexit negotiations with a hung Parliament and dependent on the DUP to sustain her in office. Having ensured with her red lines and end date the cementing of EU solidarity and lacking a viable solution for the Northern Ireland border, she had little alternative but to concede when it came to the ‘backstop’ ie, keeping Northern Ireland in the Single Market and Customs Union in the absence of a viable alternative. The twenty six supported Dublin, not London. And then under pressure from the intransigent DUP she was forced to widen the backstop to incorporate the whole of the UK.
Her next humiliation was her so-called Chequers Plan, hammered out at a marathon cabinet meeting at Chequers. Under this plan the UK would maintain a ‘common rulebook’ with the EU for all goods including agricultural products until it ‘chose’ to diverge, while applying its own tariffs for trade with the rest of the world and charging EU tariffs for goods destined to end up in the EU. The Chequers plan had two major flaws. Firstly, it did not amount to taking back control — but it took two days for the Brexit secretary to resign forcing the deceitful Boris to follow in his wake — and secondly it was a blatant attempt to ‘cherry-pick’. Michel Barnier had long warned against such a strategy but stubborn May, took it to the Salzburg Council where, with the world looking on, her ‘plan’ was given short shrift.
Now in a desperately weak position Mrs May effectively dropped her plan and accepted in its place a short, opaque ‘political declaration’. Her ignominious climb down was sufficient for the EU to agree to hold a special EU Council meeting at the end of November to sign the Withdrawal Agreement committing the UK to the backstop and a ‘divorce bill’ of £39bn. In return the EU agreed a non-binding declaration that rejected a bespoke deal on financial services, demolished any hope of securing frictionless trade and raised the prospect of the UK being locked into a customs union. Thus, after more than two years of posturing, Mrs May’s hubristic, Lancaster House stance, has wilted with exposure to reality.
Claims by Mrs May that it is the best deal available is only true because she refuses to consider the option of remaining an EU member. A broadly, pro-EU Parliament is struggling to deliver a policy it regards to be utterly misguided and is well aware that compared to remaining in the EU Mrs May’s deal is manifestly inferior. Against this reality it is pretty clear to all but our insouciant PM that she will not be given the majority she needs for her ‘Deal’ to pass through the House. If Mrs May remains true to form Brexit is not going to happen on 29th March. To date, when faced with the inconsistencies of her negotiating position her reaction has been, at the last minute, to postpone crucial decisions, most recently her decision to abort Parliament’s ‘meaningful vote’ on her Withdrawal Agreement.
But ‘running down the clock’ in a pathetic attempt to leave MP’s with the choice of her bad deal or ‘no-deal’ will not work. The zealots do not have the numbers to force a ‘no-deal. It is conceivable that some might change tack and back Mrs May’s deal to avoid a ‘Peoples’ vote but this would be futile without DUP support and they are vehemently against the backstop. Lacking Parliamentary support for her ‘deal’ the real choice now facing Mrs May is abandoning Article 50 or asking the EU to extend it beyond March. In principle, the remaining twenty seven members could, in response to a UK request, extend the Article 50 deadline for a specified period. But, there would need to be a specific purpose such as time to prepare and carry out a ‘Peoples’ vote.
Support amongst some Tories for a Norway + option ie, continued membership of the Single Market and Customs Union is a non-runner as it effectively leaves the UK as a non-voting member of the EU for an indeterminate period. Such an option only strengthens the case for a People’s vote – who would seriously argue that Leaver voters sought to relegate the UK to the status of a vassal state. The time is long overdue for Mrs May’s shenanigans – perhaps more accurately described by one of her own MP’s, Johnny Mercer, as a ‘shitshow’ – to be replaced with a style of leadership which is far more honest in setting out the fundamental choices ahead, in particular, the trade-off between sovereignty and frictionless trade with our biggest market. And having done so the people must be given the opportunity to choose.
29th December 2018