May has one life line: make Brexit a True Brexit | Luke Stewart
For many months, Theresa May managed to exceed the high expectations Brexiteer MPs and voters had of her as she showed her skills as an experienced Parliamentarian. She safely escorted the EU (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill through Parliament to trigger Article 50 without amendment, before also guiding the EU (Withdrawal) Bill itself through the Commons and the Lords before receiving Royal Assent. With the Sovereign’s signature on the sheep’s skin and the process of altering EU law into UK law on the statute book underway, it looked like the once ‘reluctant remainer’ had finally revealed her Brexiteer colours.
She had been doing well.
Then came the Chequers “Agreement”, the love child of a conniving politician and an overpowered Oliver Robbins at the head of the Civil Service. Complete with remaining in the Single Market on goods, accepting partial ECJ jurisdiction and negotiating yearly fishing quotas, the white paper for this vision of Brexit carries a fundamental flaw: it is simply not Brexit. It is very clear that the effect of May’s cloak and dagger attempt has not been what she hoped for. The splits it has caused within her party have made the divisions left by Sir Robert Peel’s choice to repeal the Corn Laws in 1848 look like a squabble between victorian children over who gets to ride the rocking horse. Davies and Johnson resigned within days. Farage has also made an official return to frontline politics. Most astonishing though, is that May still seeks to press forward with this vision, despite Michel Barnier already having smacked it away, for “some UK proposals would undermine our Single Market which is one of the EU’s biggest achievements.” The tank that this woman believed she was has lost its armour plating, and she now stands trapped in no man’s land with a plan that will never make it through Parliament, guns pointed at her from all sides with landmines beneath her feet, no matter how well she moves to Abba’s ‘Dancing Queen’ on a Conference stage.
There are three options remaining that May can consider, only one of which is realistic. Firstly, the thought of her conceding to the EU even more than she already has is what has prompted hostility from her backbenchers. The UK Government has already offered enough olive branches, any more that are put forward in the name of unreturned “cooperation” will surely only be an open invitation for Lumberjack Barnier to stroll up to the Conservative oak tree and chop it down. The Conservative Party will not survive an election standing on the platform of a “successful” Soft Brexit. As someone who has supported May up until the announcement of Chequers, someone who will not be campaigning in 2022 if this is the path the leadership follows, I can guarantee that it will be Jeremy Corbyn who will be walking into Downing Street, the red flag flying behind him, and the Conservatives only being remembered for committing the biggest betrayal in recent history. This conclusion cannot be the one that is reached.
The second option May has, but one that is untenable: walking away. The negotiating team must have the ability to walk away, and up until the amendment made to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill that allows the House of Commons a ‘meaningful vote’, Theresa May’s team were free to do so. But with a Remain supporting majority in the Lower Chamber, a motion on a no deal scenario is bound to go against the Government. By the amendment-in-lieu, it would then be the Speaker who would decide if the motion held any credibility and could force the Government to return to negotiations. Considering the ‘Bollox to Brexit’ on his Land Rover for all to behold, it’s quite obvious what decision he would make. Forced to return, weakened and handcuffed, May would end up bringing a Soft Brexit back to the UK anyway, the result that would see the Labour leader walking through that big black door.
This then leaves only one way: for May to make her Brexit a True Brexit. The one that takes us out of the Single Market, the Customs Union, and one that establishes the UK Supreme Court as the highest legal authority over British law. A Canada-style free trade agreement is the best arrangement for meeting the promises made in both major party manifestos last year, and by the official Leave campaign in 2016. Some Conservatives may say that this is not a suitable proposal, but considering the consequences of the alternatives, it must be accepted that it is the best option with the greatest chance of getting through Parliament. Jacob Rees-Mogg and the other members of the ERG have been trying to pave the way for the PM to walk down this road, what with the amendments made to the Customs and Trade Bills, and the report published by the Institute of Economic that showed how this plan would work in reality. With a bit more pressure, Theresa May will soon find herself accepting this position as her new vision. She won’t get the full credit for any success that comes of it; she knows that, and it explains why she has wanted her own vision so badly to get her name into the history books. You would hope though that she would be willing to sacrifice some of this if it means her party can still win at a General Election in the next century or so.
Yet, opponents have tended to bring up one big “issue”: the threat of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. They will bring up how the EU proposed a Canada-style free trade agreement early on in negotiations with the compromise that Northern Ireland remain in the Single Market. The truth of the matter is that the threat of a hard border is non-existent. On the 28th November 2017, the chief executive of HMRC, Jon Thompson, provided evidence to the Brexit Select Committee in the last of what had been multiple hearings. During this session, Thompson was asked about the issue of post-Brexit realignment of Northern Ireland and the EU, and promptly declared: “We do not believe, and this has been our consistent advice to ministers, we do not believe we require any infrastructure at the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland under any circumstances.”
Alongside another witness to the Committee that day, Thompson emphasised that it was the reaction of the EU and the Irish Government that was unknown. Of course, we now know their reaction: they have attempted to make the dishonest case that regulatory divergence would mean a hard border, thus imposing a threat to North-South cooperation as well as the Good Friday Agreement. Ignoring the evidence provided by Thompson that a hard border would be not be necessary in any situation, chair Hilary Benn and the other 12 members of the committee that voted to remain in the European Union published a report laced with recommendations based on false facts. The report writes, for example, that “It is not yet evident however, how this (May’s aim to avoid physical infrastructure on the Irish border) can be achieved given the Government’s current position to leave the Single Market and the Customs Union.” Implying that a hard border is likely without the UK staying inside the Single Market and Customs Union from his influential position as chair of the committee, the Labour MP hoped that this would restrain the Government’s negotiating position, and would keep the UK within an integral part of a political union that he wants to remain in. However, with the EU now offering a Canada-style agreement, it is only May’s stubbornness that is preventing a Global Britain from reaping the rewards Brexit truly has to offer.
The Prime Minister has opposed the vision of Rees-Mogg and the ERG for as long as she could, but it was only a matter of time before her attempts to force her own proposal down the throats of Cabinet colleagues caught up to her. With her white paper deemed unworkable by Barnier, the electoral destruction guaranteed by a Soft Brexit, and being unable to walk away without a settlement due to Parliament’s constant gaze, a Canada style Free Trade Agreement without the fantasy threat of an Irish hard border is the only path down which May can escape with a shred of dignity for the future.
Margaret Thatcher gained great respect and popularity for her memorable phase, “this lady’s not for turning.” If even after all this, our lady is not for turning, perhaps she must finally step aside for someone who is.