The cabinet’s ‘unanimously agreed’ acceptance of May’s ‘political coup’ did not last very long, writes Eddie Ford
We had a dramatic beginning to the week with the resignations of first Brexit secretary David Davis and then the ludicrous foreign secretary, Boris Johnson - along with a clutch of junior ministers and two obscure party vice-chairs. It is rumoured that hard Brexiteers are threatening a “drip, drip” of resignations in order to undermine Theresa May - maybe even drum up the numbers for a vote of no confidence.
But we shall wait and see - most Tory rebels are all talk and no backbone, and do not appear to have the numbers to topple the prime minister. Neither do they want to inadvertently trigger a general election that could possibly lead to the advent of a Labour government - whether led by Jeremy Corbyn or not. With the Tories in their current state of chaos, they are not exactly confident of being re-elected.
It was pretty clear that sooner or later there would be a crisis. May could not continue indefinitely trying to make the right noises to both the hard Brexiteers and those who thought it essential to retain the closest possible ties with the European Union - if some kind of ‘remain’ could not be wrangled, that is. It was just too good to be true when the entire cabinet ‘unanimously agreed’ to May’s post-Brexit plan at Chequers on July 6. It seems Davis did not even know all the details beforehand.
It would be churlish to deny, however, that Theresa May had prepared her position extremely well, swotting being one of her skills. She courted not just allies, or potential allies, in the cabinet, but also Tory backbenchers - including ‘loyal’ Brexiteers. The Financial Times’s coverage of the ‘awayday’ is instructive, praising the prime minister’s “carefully planned political coup” that saw hard Brexiteers “fall in line” and agree a “pro-business position” - one that keeps Britain “intimately bound” to the European Union single market and customs union (July 7).
For the paper, May’s “confrontation” with the hard Brexiteers was the “decisive moment” when she finally “put economic stability first” - the prime also insisting that from now on all ministers would be bound by collective responsibility: if you cannot toe the line, get out or be sacked. Greg Clark, the business secretary, also did his bit as well - getting big business to make a lot of noise, with Airbus, Jaguar Land Rover, Nissan, etc all demanding “clarity” and access to the single market.
Which is what they essentially got with May’s ‘facilitated customs arrangement’ (FCA) - a rehashed version of her previously rejected ‘new customs partnership’. Hence Johnson’s widely quoted comment at Chequers about “polishing a turd”. According to the three-page summary of the proposed deal, after Brexit the UK will “maintain a common rulebook for all goods” with the EU, including agricultural products - but not for services like banking. This should mean that Airbus, Jaguar, Siemens, etc would not be affected in any meaningful way by Brexit, whilst British banks operating in Europe would still be able to straddle the world in the fearless buccaneering spirit that once made Britain great. Meanwhile, a treaty would be signed committing the UK to “continued harmonisation” with EU rules and the borders between the UK and EU would be treated as a “combined customs territory” - thereby avoiding in theory a hard Irish border and removing the need for the infamous “backstop” arrangements, keeping Northern Ireland in “full regulatory alignment” with the single market.
Additionally, parliament would oversee the UK’s trade policy and have the ability to “choose” to diverge from the EU rules, “recognising that this would have consequences” - and “cooperative arrangements” would be established between EU and UK competition regulators, with “different arrangements” for services “where it is in our interests to have regulatory flexibility”. A “joint institutional framework” would be established to interpret UK-EU agreements and any decisions by UK courts would involve “due regard paid to EU case law in areas where the UK continued to apply a common rulebook” - cases would still be referred to the European Court of Justice as the interpreter of EU rules, but if “cannot resolve disputes between the two”.
Furthermore, the UK would apply domestic tariffs and trade policies for goods intended for the UK, but charge (higher) EU tariffs and their equivalents for goods which end up heading into the EU - though that raises the obvious problem of smuggling, especially across the ‘frictionless’ Irish border, not to mention its workability.
Freedom of movement would come to an end, apparently, but there would be a “mobility framework” to allow UK and EU citizens to travel to each other’s territories - May refusing to rule out preferential treatment for EU citizens.
The document ends by stating that these proposals represent a “precise and responsible approach to the final stage of the negotiations”, reminding us that this is only the opening salvo. In reality, of course, the final deal - assuming there is one - will be quite different from the one outlined in the Chequers dossier. It is fairly inconceivable that Michel Barnier and his team would just nod it through: what about the other freedoms, people and services? That has always been their position and it is hard to see it changing. You can guarantee, therefore, that the EU will seek to extract more concessions from the British government - making’s Theresa May’s soft Brexit even softer. How would the hard Brexiteers react to that?
In other words, the result so far is something more like Norway with a few minuses than the ‘Canada plus, plus, plus’ originally imagined, or dreamed of - hard reality is setting in. And, two days after the ‘away-day’, Davis quite his job, having threatened to do so many times before. In his resignation letter, Davis said “the current trend of policy and tactics” was making it “look less and less likely” that the UK would leave the customs union and single market - he was “unpersuaded” that the government’s negotiating approach “will not just lead to further demands for concessions” from Brussels. Rather, the “general direction” of May’s approach “will leave us in at best a weak negotiating position, and possibly an inescapable one”.
Davis later told the BBC that he had objected to Theresa May’s Chequers plan right from the outset, telling colleagues that he was “the odd man out” - he felt the UK was “giving away too much and too easily” to the EU in the negotiations. He insisted that he did not want to bring down May’s government, arguing - reasonably enough in some respects - that the proper time to do that would have been after her disastrous general election campaign, in which she lost her parliamentary majority. Getting the short straw, Dominic Raab, a stalwart hard Brexiteer, replaces Davis as Brexit secretary - sticking to her policy of like-for-like swaps to maintain the political balance in the cabinet.
As for Johnson, he only went over the top after someone else had taken the initial hail of bullets. Johnson declared in an overblown resignation letter that the government “now has a song to sing”, but the trouble is the words “stick in the throat”’ - he went on to accuse May of pursuing a mere “semi-Brexit”. In fact, Johnson wrote, the Brexit “dream is dying, suffocated by needless self-doubt”. Johnson claimed that the current plan meant Britain was “truly headed for the status of colony” - the prime minister “sending our vanguard into battle with the white flags fluttering above them”. Johnson was swiftly replaced by Jeremy Hunt, who was despised as health secretary by NHS workers. He had campaigned for ‘remain’ during the referendum, but in his own words is a “convert” to the Brexit cause.
Naturally, Jacob Rees-Mogg and his not-so merry band of the European Research group are not at all happy. They published an 18-page briefing document, saying it “would lead directly to a worst-of-all-worlds black hole Brexit” - if the UK has to follow EU laws and ECJ rulings, then the country would not be able to develop an “effective international trade policy”. How is that ‘taking back control’? Indeed, Rees-Mogg told the BBC, the proposed plan could be worse than leaving the EU without a deal.
Inevitably, rumours abound that Rees-Mogg and other hard Brexiteers are trying to gather the 48 MPs’ signatures needed to force a vote of no confidence in the prime minister. But they would struggle hard to muster the 159 votes needed to oust May, who by all accounts has said “bring it on” - confident that she would win any such contest, especially as there is no viable alternative candidate (Michael Gove? Sajid Javid?). The Brexiteers, as Rees-Mogg must surely know, would be unwise to move now, given that party rules stipulate that you can force a no-confidence vote only once every 12 months - tactically best, you would think, to let events develop and pick a more opportune time to strike. After all, the EU might reject May’s soft Brexit, which must be the calculation of the hard Brexiteers - sit tight and things might eventually go their way.
By the same token, Theresa May knows that she will struggle to get her FCA plan through parliament. This perhaps explains why Labour MPs were briefed about the government’s soft Brexit plan by the prime minister’s de facto deputy, David Lidington - a possible sign that Downing Street is beginning to accept that it will need to draw on cross-party support if it is to stand a chance of parliamentary approval. Of course, this further infuriated Rees-Mogg, who grumbled bitterly about May being dependent on “socialist votes” to get the Chequers plan through parliament.
Having said that, the prime minister must also know that Labour, Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party will almost certainly vote against any Brexit deal she puts forward. Sir Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, has certainly indicated that Labour will vote down anything that fails to meet its six tests, which essentially require that any plan must deliver the “exact same benefits” as Britain currently enjoys as a member of the single market and customs union. Labour sources have said they do not believe defeating any final Brexit agreement would set a course for the UK to leave the EU with no deal.
With no parliamentary majority for a hard Brexit we seem to be entering Brexit paralysis. May might be left with no option than to apply to extend the article 50 exit process, whilst holding a general election in a bid to break the impasse - then almost anything could happen. One thing that can be said without any reservation is that a Labour victory is far from guaranteed, let alone a Corbyn premiership. Nevertheless, the chances are that a new parliamentary configuration, certainly a national government of some kind, would save the day for the interests of big capital and go for the softest of soft Brexits, a Brexit which puts Britain in the position of a Norway or a Switzerland. In other words leaving the EU but remaining in the EU. Inevitably, that would bring forward charges of betrayal and treachery. A heady and dangerous brew.
Jacob Rees-Mogg has often complained that a soft or semi-Brexit could leave Britain as a “vassal state” - a rule-taker and not a rule-maker. This is not the sort of language communists would use, but it would be stupid to deny that what Rees-Mogg says contains a kernel of truth. Objectively speaking, it does seem ludicrous to ‘leave’ the customs union, but at the same time stay in it - forced to pay due heed to the ECJ, and EU rules and regulations in general, but having no direct say or vote in how those laws are drawn up or implemented. A Norway or Switzerland with no pluses, still paying into the EU budget, accepting free movement (sorry, “mobility framework”), and so on.
In which case, what is the point of it all? Because, we are told, there was a referendum and you have to respect ‘the will of the people’ - which, funnily enough, never mattered before and will probably never matter again. Brexit means Brexit, except that it does not seem to mean much at all. If by some very unlikely sequence of events, the UK ends up with either a hard Brexit or ‘no deal’, then it is doubtful whether Airbus and co will immediately pull down the hatches and shut up shop. But in all likelihood any future investment decisions will leave the UK out of the equation, and in the longer term they will physically transfer production and operations elsewhere. As far as the hard Brexiteers are concerned, it is a hit they are prepared to take - banking will make up for it, they hope. As Boris Johnson famously said, “Fuck business” - by which he presumably meant industrial capital.