Deal or no deal?
Theresa May feels forced, despite herself, to go for a ‘clean’ Brexit, argues Eddie Ford
It has been clear for some time that Theresa May was on a ‘hard’ Brexit trajectory, even if the prime minister herself was a ‘remainer’ during the referendum campaign - albeit a very quiet one that made Jeremy Corbyn seem almost frenetic by comparison. Indeed, as late as December 2016 she was heavily implying at a European Union summit that she wanted Britain to stay within the internal single market. And the majority of the political establishment certainly wants to minimise the damage from Brexit, or ideally throw it into reverse if the opportunity arises.
But May faced an impossible contradiction: ‘soft’ Brexit effectively amounts to no Brexit, as remaining part of the single market means accepting the free movement of people - meaning pledges to curb immigration were worthless, if not a cynical lie. Obviously, if May were to climb down on free movement this would be regarded as a great betrayal by large ranks of the Tory Party and way beyond - including many of those who voted ‘remain’, no doubt. She would no longer be ‘listening to the concerns’ of the British people. Being a canny politician with no desire to commit political suicide (unlike her hapless predecessor), May had to reinvent herself as an enthusiastic Brexiteer.
Which brings us to the prime minister’s long awaited January 17 speech, where she laid out her apparently hard-line negotiating position - we will not get down on our knees before the EU or renege on the ‘mandate’ given to us by the British people last year on June 23. Hence the Tory leader declared that she would be pursuing a ‘clean’ Brexit that involved no partial or associate EU membership - nothing that “leaves us half-in, half-out” or holding on to “bits of membership as we leave”. Nor would Britain “seek to adopt a model already enjoyed by other countries”. There would be no EU membership via the back door. Rather, regaining control of immigration and sovereignty is the number one priority for the Conservative government.
She then outlined “12 objectives” for negotiations with the EU 27: first and foremost “explicitly” ruling out Britain seeking continued membership of the single market, once it leaves the EU; and ‘taking back control’ of its borders on the basis that record levels of migration had “put pressure on public services”. Other aims include removing the UK from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, as “we will not have truly left the European Union if we are not in control of our own laws”; not paying “huge sums” into the EU budget, but making an “appropriate contribution” to “some specific European programmes, in which we might want to participate”; and not staying within the customs union in its current form - perhaps, instead, becoming an “associate” member in order to make trading across borders as “frictionless as possible”.
As an important part of this “new strategic partnership” with the EU, we heard, the government will be in pursuit of the “greatest possible access” to the single market on a “fully reciprocal basis”, through a “comprehensive, bold and ambitious free trade agreement” - and, in tandem, build trading relationships with countries beyond Europe as part of a “global Britain” strategy.
For May, “no deal” is much preferable to a “bad deal” because - in her opinion - “we would be free to strike trade deals across the world”. But, needless to say, May was “confident that this scenario need never arise”.
Maybe throwing a crumb of comfort to some, the prime minister announced that a “final deal” on Britain’s exit from the EU will be put to a vote of both houses of parliament - although Downing Street sources have made clear that parliament would not be able to stop Britain leaving the EU.
Inevitably, there are endless questions about the finer details. For example, Theresa May so far has not explained what kind of immigration system she envisages for EU citizens post-Brexit - previously rejecting the introduction of an Australian-style points-based regime, as once advocated by George Galloway. Ministers have hinted at the possibility of work visas, but nothing more concrete has yet emerged. Then with regards to the new customs agreement, if it ever happens, May’s remarks show that the government will be looking for sector-by-sector deals for certain key businesses - like we saw with Nissan recently, though we still do not know the terms of that deal or the promises made. She also confirmed in the speech that the government would be looking for a special deal for the City that will “give us freedom to provide financial services across borders”, as it “makes no sense to start again from scratch, when Britain and the remaining member-states have adhered to the same rules for so many years”.
But, whatever the exact details (or not), May seems determined - at least initially - to play hardball when the negotiations start. Whether it is a successful pitch, or pays any dividends, is an entirely different matter. The euphoric rightwing press might start to feel deflated a year or so down the road.
Nigel Farage was delighted by the speech, tweeting that he could “hardly believe that the PM is now using the phrases and words that I’ve been mocked for using for years” - this is “real progress”, he added. The chief executive of the Vote Leave campaign, Matthew Elliott, was similarly elated: “Superb speech from PM - everything we campaigned for”. Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, was also enthusiastic about May’s “fantastic speech” and looked forward to a “clean break” with the EU.
Others were not so happy. Tim Farron, leader of the Liberal Democrats, said the speech confirmed that ‘hard’ Brexit would do “massive damage” to the economy - and it was a “theft of democracy”, as Theresa May has “basically taken the 51.9% who voted to leave last June and assumed they all bought Farage’s line”. So, he remarked, “we wait seven months for a plan” - but when we finally get one, “it’s Ukip’s”. He was also upset that May “wants a stitch-up by politicians in Westminster” which will “allow the partially-elected parliament the final say, but ignore the British people, who will probably disagree with the deal”. But, given that the people “voted for departure”, he argued, they should also get a “vote on the destination” - ie, hold another referendum on the final deal. Perhaps he has been listening to Jon Lansman.
Farron also attacked the prime minister for warning the EU not to punish the UK, because it was an “unwise negotiating tactic” - a viewpoint endorsed by the former Tory chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, who in a Commons debate following May’s speech wondered: “Which country in the world is going to enter into a trade agreement with this country on the basis that the rules are entirely what the British say they’re going to be, on any particular day, and if there’s any dispute about the rules it’s going to be sorted out by the British government?”
Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Green Party, straightforwardly denounced May for being “willing to take an extreme gamble with our country’s future” - pointing out that the prime minister has “morphed” a “close-run referendum into a mandate for an extremely hard Brexit” which will harm the economy as part of her “desperate desire” to end free movement and appease the xenophobic right.
Jeremy Corbyn too was less than impressed by May, having last week relaunched himself as a populist politician - a move that saw him declare that he was he was “not wedded to freedom of movement for EU citizens as a point of principle” (although in the next breath he added: “But I don’t want that to be misinterpreted - nor do we rule it out”). From which we deduce that free movement is a “point of principle” except when it is not. Anyway, the Labour leader correctly pointed out that the speech carried an “implied threat” that Britain will become a “low-tax, bargain basement economy” on the offshores of Europe and that May was determined to use Brexit to strip away workers’ rights: she “makes out this is a negotiating threat” to the EU, “but it’s actually a threat to the British people’s jobs, services and living standards”.
However, striking a completely different tone, shadow Brexit minister Keir Starmer almost welcomed May’s speech, pointing to the deep divisions within the Labour Party over the issue. He told MPs that Theresa May’s strategy would “fall short of hard Brexit” if she achieves her aims, and in fact May had “committed” to something that would “mimic” full EU membership. Not very convincing.
Meanwhile, Boris Johnson would have us believe that other countries are “queuing up” to sign trade deals with the UK once it leaves the EU, writing in The DailyTelegraph - where else? - that, once Britain no longer has its trade policy “run by the EU commission”, that “crucially” means that the country “will be able to do new free trade deals with countries around the world” (January 17). Sure, under present EU rules the UK will not be “formally allowed” to negotiate these new treaties until we leave, but “there is nothing to say that ideas cannot be pencilled in”.
However, as Rafael Behr observes in The Guardian, May “can think big all she likes” but it is far more likely that Britain’s “about to find out just how small it is”.1 More accurately still, Behr reminds the British prime minister - for all the talk of an early trade deal with the US - that, when “viewed from Trump Tower”, Britain “sits in the bottom half of the first division of world players”: yes, a “leading G7 economy, a nuclear-armed security council member, but not a superpower”. Therefore for the US administration, he comments, “our interests matter, but probably not that much more than Belgian interests currently matter in Whitehall” - it really is a “question of perspective”. Ultimately, Atlanticist fantasy cannot substitute for a rational approach to economic and foreign policy.
As this paper has pointed out, the Brexit debate does not neatly map out in ‘left/right’ terms with regard to Labour. Hence the ‘soft Brexit’ outlook unites a Corbynite like Diane Abbott with traditional Blairites and other pro-EU members of the Labour neoliberal right - both think keeping access to the single market is of paramount importance. But we now have the rather unedifying example of Paul ‘nuke them’ Mason as well. A former member of the Trotskyist group, Workers Power, and now a convert to Lansmanism, he is glad that “Labour has recognised that free movement is not a basic principle of socialism” (January 15).2 Instead, he asserts, the “new defence line of the left and centre” is clear - “we can and must own the Brexit decision” without rancour and then “fight to remain inside the single market”, whilst “implementing the express desire of the majority to end free movement”.
Unlike the turncoat Mason and perhaps Jeremy Corbyn (it is hard to tell), communists are “wedded” to the notion of free movement, precisely because it is a “basic principle” of socialism. National barriers only serve the interests of capital. We fight everywhere for the principle of free movement and open borders, allied to mass political organisations and free trade unions. This is the perspective that Marxists inside and outside the Labour Party will continue to uphold.