Three Brexiteers set up to fail
When it comes to the EU, Theresa May has shown herself capable of thinking ahead for more than a week, writes Eddie Ford
Theresa May’s cabinet reshuffle, has been widely reported as a “ruthless” clearing out of the Cameroons.1 Obviously, George Osborne had to go - now a symbol of failure. Remember when he was a tactical genius? In fact, his entire austerity programme has been a complete failure. It has been abandoned ,after the Brexit vote, in favour of some sort of stimulus - an obvious move in an economic downturn, especially when interest rates are incredibly cheap, when the government can borrow money for next to nothing. But, no, when the Tories entered the coalition government in 2010, they embarked upon austerity. We do not know yet what exact economic package Osborne’s replacement, Phillip Hammond, will come up with - but the language of austerity is quickly dying. Something that made the July 18 People’s Assembly/ Stand Up To Racism demonstration in London (‘No austerity, no to racism’) a slightly surreal event, as if Brexit had never happened.
In another unsurprising move, Michael ‘psycho killer’ Gove was summarily sacked - he seemed to be regarded by everyone as a backstabbing traitor- and Dominic Raab, a strong Gove supporter, lost his job as civil liberties minister, no doubt in a case of guilt by association. Oliver Letwin, a key ally of Cameron going back years, also went. Michael Fallon kept his role as defence secretary and Sir Alan Duncan returned to government, having being removed as junior international development minister in 2014 - now finding himself acting as a deputy to Boris Johnson only weeks after mocking him as “Silvio Borisconi”.2 Maybe more a punishment than promotion. Amber Rudd took up May’s former job as home secretary and Justine Greening became education secretary.
The most significant appointments, it almost goes without saying, concern three figures strongly associated with the Brexit campaign - Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox. To much mirth, some of it perhaps unwarranted, Johnson was made foreign secretary, while Davis took up the newly created position of secretary of state for exiting the European Union (Brexit minister) and Fox heads the new department for international trade.
In the end, of the 22 full members of the cabinet and five who have the right to attend, only five retained the roles they held previously. When it comes to the 69 junior government and whips jobs, 15 went to women - a slightly lower proportion than the near third of female appointments in the cabinet. It is also worth noting that May made her longstanding policy advisor, “bearded Brummie” Nick Timothy, her joint chief-of-staff - alongside Fiona Hill, who was forced to resign in 2014 after a Downing Street inquiry found she had been the source of briefing against Gove over the ‘Trojan Horse’ fake scandal about Islamist ‘infiltration’ of schools in Birmingham. Much is made by the likes of the Financial Times as to Timothy’s working class background in the Tile Cross district of Birmingham and his grammar school education - funny really, considering how we are all supposed to be middle class now.
Anyhow, he embraces the idea of state activism and his hero is not a Tory politician, but rather the former Liberal mayor of Birmingham, Joseph Chamberlain - who more than 100 years ago, in the words of Timothy, “believed that the state must remain small, capitalism must be preserved and private property protected, but working class children needed to be educated, workers protected from industrial injuries and unscrupulous bosses and the ownership of property extended to people of all classes”.3 Hence his thinking is evident in the speech that May gave on the doorstep of Number 10, in which she promised to help Britons who felt their lives spinning “out of control” - and her attack on “unscrupulous bosses” during the leadership campaign. Not that Timothy is a bleeding-heart liberal, of course - he supported Brexit, is tough on immigration and favours a limited return of selective education.
Theresa May can actually think more than a week ahead - not an attribute you particularly associate with David Cameron. This was especially shown by her quick appointments of Johnson, Davis and Fox. In many respects, May is saying to the Brexit trio, ‘You got us into this mess, so you can take the blame.’ It is all but inevitable that they will fall out pretty quickly, and a Davis resignation seems almost certain when post-Brexit reality sinks in. Given that their declared intention is to retain access to the EU single market, while restricting in some way the free movement of people - something clearly unacceptable to EU leaders - the only conclusion you can draw is that they have been put up to fail, which would be a pretty smart move. Let them take the flak, not May.
Indeed, May has moved well to cement Tory unity - when, being unelected by the party membership and a ‘remainer’, she could easily have become a divisive or resented figure. After all, if the referendum vote had gone the other way, you could readily imagine Cameron putting together such a unity cabinet. Underlining the point that May appears to have a slightly longer-term view of politics than we have been used to, her very first official act as prime minister was to meet Nicola Sturgeon in Edinburgh - she stressed that any Brexit terms have to have the agreement of all parts of the UK. Hence, another impossible hurdle for the three Brexiteers.
Sturgeon’s spokesperson said May was “willing to listen to any proposal we bring forward to keeping Scotland’s membership of the EU”. In turn, a spokeswoman for the prime minister reiterated that she was committed to including the devolved Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish administrations in Brexit discussions - though in regard to a possible second referendum on Scottish independence, “the prime minister’s view is that we have already had a referendum. It was legal, and fair, and the result was decisive.”
Only a few weeks ago sections of the left, especially the Socialist Workers Party, were eagerly predicting that Brexit would shatter the Tories - the latest issue of Socialist Worker telling us that May is “presiding over a divided party with a tiny parliamentary majority” and anticipating that “her government will be a stormy one” (July 19). But this is obviously a wish-fulfilment fantasy on the part of the comrades: there is absolutely no evidence that the Tory Party is more divided than it has previously been, let alone about to split - quite the opposite. May so far is proving to be a steady pair of hands and the party looks very likely to unite behind her at least for the moment.
Theresa May said at her first cabinet meeting on July 19 that she could “make Brexit work for Britain” - adding that “Brexit means Brexit” and how it was “the duty” of every minister to “deliver success” on behalf of everyone in the country, “not just the privileged few”. Furthermore, she said, her government will “not be defined by Brexit”, but instead will “build the education, skills and social mobility” to “allow everyone to prosper from the opportunities of leaving the EU”: social justice will be at heart of her administration, you see. We also learnt from May that “politics is not a game”. Janan Ganesh of the Financial Times, however, was doubtlessly nearer the mark when he pointed out that “the process of extrication from the EU will, in all but the most fantastic scenarios, occupy ministerial and bureaucratic capacity for most of the rest of the parliament” (July 15).
May also revealed that she will personally take charge of the three new ministerial committees (on Brexit, the economy and social reform) to implement her “priorities” for government. Afterwards, No 10 hastily denied it was a move by the prime minister to keep tight control on the policy areas covered by Johnson, Davis and Fox. May then travelled the next day to Germany for talks with Angela Merkel, followed by discussions with François Hollande - these focussed on maintaining “good relations” in the wake of the Brexit vote, as well as opening discussions on how the process might proceed. Discussions about Brexit must be “frank and open”, May declared - nor does she “underestimate the challenge” of the negotiations to come. Responding ahead of the visit, Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, stressed that “it’s up to Britain to make clear how it wants to structure its relationship with the EU in future” - ie, the onus was on the UK, not the EU, to make it work.
The prime minister told Merkel that Britain “needs time” to prepare for Brexit. Indeed, May has made it quite clear that she will not trigger article 50 until there is a clear “UK approach” - government lawyers confirming at the opening of the first legal challenge to the Brexit process on July 19 that May will not push the button (the nuclear button might be a different matter) which theoretically initiates the UK’s departure from the EU before at least the end of this year.
But this immediately presents a problem. After some initial consolatory comments from Merkel, the EU leaders have toughened their stance: quite understandably from their point of view, they do not want to make it easy for countries to leave the EU - especially as both Merkel and Hollande face re-election next year and are under considerable domestic political pressure to drive a hard bargain. Meaning no special exceptions can be made for Britain in terms of continued access to the single market if the UK does not sign up to freedom of movement - no ifs, no buts.
Therefore, for the German and French governments, an exit request must be delivered as soon as possible - trigger article 50 now if you are serious. Only then can negotiations over the exit conditions begin. Contrary to what some argue, the EU leaders really mean this - hence the ban on any informal talks with Britain. Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president, has even said that he will sack any staff caught informally discussing terms with Britain. Sure, Merkel remarked, the UK needs to “consider things for a while”, but “we should not wait for a long time” - she was quoted by Reuters as saying, “We can’t have a permanent impasse”. Really ramming home the point, Brussels has also emphatically ruled out talks - informal or otherwise - on a possible trade deal before the UK triggers article 50, a diplomat commenting: “If they treat their referendum as a non-event, we will also treat their referendum as a non-event”.
Not surprisingly, there are those who think article 50 will never be triggered because the relatively tight deadline for talks puts the state wishing to leave in a weak position - another EU diplomat stated that “the moment you push the button you’re in a stupid negotiating position”. Developing this theory, or suspicion, lawyer and writer David Allen Green, suggests:
… the longer article 50 notification is put off, the greater the chance it will never be made …. As long as the notification is not sent, the UK remains part of the EU. And there is currently no reason or evidence to believe that, regardless of the referendum result, the notification will be sent at all.4
And, of course, “so long as the article 50 notification is not made, the UK continues to be a full member of the EU, as it was before the referendum took place; indeed, as if the referendum never took place at all”.5 In other words, there might well be a prolonged stand-off, which could last many years - perhaps for ever.
Regular Weekly Worker readers will know that we have speculated on numerous occasions about the possibility of a second referendum, which could still happen. All those opinion polls, articles and documentaries about people having second thoughts - the so-called ‘regrexiters’ - might have an eventual impact: after all, we have to listen to the ‘concerns’ of the British people, don’t we?6 But, of course, a second referendum is by no means inevitable. Rather, just let things drag and drag, and people’s memories are short anyway - June 23 becoming more and more distant.
Theresa May can always blame Brexiters like Johnson, Davis and Fox for not getting a deal that suits Britain’s interests, when it comes to free movement and the single market - and that perfidious bluffer, Johnson, never really believed in Brexit in the first place. Come to think of it, why the hell should we be obligated by a legally non-binding referendum that took place years ago under very different circumstances?
Things are being set up to take a very long time. Brexit could end not with a bang, but a whimper - dying from inertia and apathy.
1. Eg, ‘More heads roll in next round of Theresa May’s “ruthless” reshuffle’ The Guardian July 16 2016.
5. “News and comment on law and policy, from a liberal and critical perspective”.