Banking on cliff edges is a dangerous strategy
With less than a week to go before the next Brexit vote, Theresa May has brought nothing meaningful back from Brussels. So what next? asks Eddie Ford
Predictably Theresa May did not get the breakthrough she was banking on in talks with European Commission president Jean-Claude Junker. Following their Brussels meeting, officials issued the usual bland press release reiterating the commitment of both sides to “an open border in Ireland” and respecting the “integrity of the single market and the United Kingdom”.
So, the prime minister is still going round and round in circles and getting nowhere, as she tries to square the Brexit circle, attempting to conjure up a deal that pleases the hard Brexiteers of the European Research Group, the Democratic Unionist Party and the majority of MPs - not to mention the European Union negotiators. Her chances of securing an 11th hour success are not great, to put it mildly.
However, fantasies do seem to be dissolving fast under the pressure of reality - which will not be to the liking of ERGers and most on the Eurosceptic wing of the Tory Party. The prime minister has junked both the search for “alternative arrangements” regarding the Irish border, as supposedly ‘mandated’ by the vaguely worded Brady amendment, and also the so-called ‘Malthouse compromise’, championed by some cross-factional Tory MPs - which essentially sought a free-trade agreement, thanks to as-yet-unknown technology to avoid customs checks on the Irish border. These proposals were clearly for the unicorns, epitomising for EU negotiators the “madhouse” atmosphere of Westminster, as Brexit day nears.
Of course, the only reason that the Brady amendment was passed in the first place is because MPs had different interpretations of what it actually meant - therefore was bound to have a very short shelf life once exposed to the political realities of EU negotiations. A thought echoed by Phillip Hammond speaking on February 19. He argued that the plan was a “valuable effort” that should be looked at again during the transition period. But it was not a viable solution right now, as it is “clear” that the EU would never consider replacing or removing the backstop with such an arrangement, because that would require “significant changes” to EU legislation and customs practices. There is neither the political will in the EU nor the time to make such changes.
With the clock running down, the cabinet was updated on February 19 about the option of a no-deal Brexit - a cabinet source saying the general mood in the room had “noticeably” turned against using ‘no deal’ as a negotiating tactic, with apparently only Liz Truss, the treasury secretary, speaking up enthusiastically in favour. The Daily Telegraph further reports that Theresa May was warned by cabinet ministers Amber Rudd, David Gauke, Greg Clark and David Mundell that she faces the resignation of 22 government ministers over a no-deal Brexit - urging her to “publicly commit” to extending article 50 in the event that a deal cannot be reached by the end of March. Even if by some minor miracle May did secure parliamentary approval for her deal, senior EU officials expect a ‘technical’ extension (probably signed off at the European Council summit on March 21) of around three months to give the UK time to ratify the agreement and pass the associated legislation.
Further complicating matters, Jean-Claude Juncker stressed on February 19 that there would be “conditions” placed on any extension requests - possibly including the need for Britain to participate in the May European elections. How that would actually work, both politically and practically, is hard to imagine - but it would create a storm - and an opportunity for Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party to denounce the treachery of the British government and the unpatriotic metropolitan elite.
All of this follows on, of course, from Theresa May’s second big parliamentary defeat on February 14 - this time with the ERG abstaining on the main government motion, so that the prime minister was defeated by a majority of 45 votes - with a small number of pro-EU MPs also refusing to back the motion. The ERG was unhappy that the government appeared to rule out a no-deal Brexit, the strong suspicion being that many in the group positively prefer such an outcome - with their fantasies about a truly ‘independent’ Britain striking buccaneering free-trade deals in every corner of the globe. Reacting to the defeat, Downing Street hypocritically pointed the finger at Jeremy Corbyn, who had “put partisan considerations ahead of the national interest” - which the Tory Party would never do, of course - and voted to “make ‘no deal’ more likely”. So it had nothing to do with May’s obviously deliberate strategy to run the clock and scare MPs into backing her deal at the very last minute.
In turn, ‘remain’-inclined Tory MPs warned May that she cannot rely on the likes of the ERG - nor should she be held hostage by them. Showing the tension building within the Conservative Party, three Tory MPs, Anna Soubry, Sarah Wollaston and Heidi Allen - the usual pro-EU suspects - defected to the newly formed Independent Group of eight former Labour MPs. They issued a joint statement saying they can no longer remain in a party “whose policies and priorities are so firmly in the grip of the ERG and DUP” - Brexit having “re-defined the Conservative Party, undoing all the efforts to modernise it”. There has been a “dismal failure” to stand up to the ERG, the statement continues, “which operates openly as a party within a party, with its own leader, whip and policy”.
Expressing the same sentiments, or frustration, Nick Boles - a former government minister adamantly opposed to ‘no deal’ - said the February 14 vote should be a “wake-up call” to the prime minister. Maybe “the penny will now drop”, he commented, that the ERG “will stop at nothing” to get a hard Brexit - therefore “responsible MPs of all parties must come together” to stop them. Using even stronger language, Richard Harrington, a business minister, even suggested that the ERGers were guilty of “treachery” and should seriously consider joining Farage’s Brexit Party - which, after all, “seems designed for them”. I very much doubt that Jacob Rees-Mogg and his colleagues will follow Harrington’s advice, but the point is taken.
May’s latest defeat does not bode well for her prospects of wrangling some concessions or “reassurances” from the EU over the backstop, it almost goes without saying - even if the vote was, in theory, purely symbolic. She has shown herself incapable of uniting her own party behind her, let alone parliament as a whole - so what is the incentive for the EU to change course? Immediately after the vote, diplomats in Brussels said the result confirmed that the British prime minister could not command the support of her party on key votes, and that she needed to start working on cross-party solutions. Another ominous sign for Theresa May are the reports that the Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, has flatly ruled out any “keyhole surgery” to the withdrawal agreement, while also insisting yet again that Ireland will not accept any unilateral exit clause to the Irish backstop or an expiry date.
So what is the next move for the prime minister? Her strategy, insofar as you can call it that, appears to be more of the same: keep on trying what has not worked before in the hope that it will eventually work - a less than inspiring approach. But events might be taken completely out of her hands come the big crunch vote on February 27 when MPs get another shot at wrestling control over the Brexit process away from the government - if they back the binding Yvette Cooper amendment that would force the prime minister to apply for an article 50 extension if she had failed to get a withdrawal agreement through parliament by the middle of March. Once again, it is not absolutely guaranteed that the EU will consent to such an extension as the decision needs to be a unanimous one by all the member states - but the probability is very high.
On the other hand, there is now much speculation that Theresa May might be planning to bring forward the second ‘meaningful’ vote to early next week, before MPs get a chance to vote on the Cooper amendment. In this way she is hoping to see off the threat of mass ministerial resignations, which would be extremely damaging politically for the prime minister and provide yet more proof to the EU that she is not in charge of her own party or parliament.
Meanwhile, May continues to run the clock down, with both senior EU officials and British cabinet ministers privately voicing concerns that the prime minister is still misreading the extent of what is possible at the March 21 summit. They fear that she is walking into the same trap she set for herself at the humiliating Salzburg meeting in September last year, having learned all the wrong lessons from the euro crisis and the EU’s treatment of Greece. It is true that just about every single Brexiteer says the same thing - the EU bailed out the Greeks after initially saying they would not and will move again at the very last second to midnight to offer concessions or compromises on the Irish backstop. So nothing to worry about then. But, as one Tory MP confidentially told Politico, “… they fucking didn’t move for the Greeks. The Greeks got an even worse deal. There’s a real danger here that we are going to walk into the room with the same demands and get the same result”.