Reset to Year Zero
With the EU agreeing to a six month ‘flexible extension’ and talks with Labour getting nowhere, Theresa May is fast running out of options, writes Eddie Ford
As expected, the Cooper-Letwin bill passed through the House of Lords late on April 8 by a large majority and the next day the House of Commons voted by 420 to 110 for a motion obligating Theresa May to ask the European Union to delay Brexit.
Of course, the prime minister pleaded for an extension at the April 10 emergency summit of EU leaders. But she wanted a short one - until June 30. Instead the EU 27 agreed a middling extension - to October 31. Not that this, nor what is now the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2019 prevent no deal, obviously, as for that there would need to be a vote to revoke article 50 - which was precisely the aim last week of the Scottish National Party’s Joanna Cherry and her (unsuccessful) indicative vote motion. In that sense, neither the Cooper-Letwin vote, nor the new, October 31, date changes much.
Nevertheless it increases the pressure on Theresa May, restricting her room for manoeuvre to one degree or another. Simply running down the clock becomes a bit harder. As readers will doubtlessly recall, the extraordinarily swift passage of the bill - which took just three sitting days to complete - was made possible by the success of an unprecedented amendment (which won by just one vote) allowing MPs to seize control of parliamentary business on particular days, meaning the government could not block its progress. Naturally, the government fears that backbenchers will now feel emboldened to take further control of the parliamentary process, passing more bills of their own devising and in general frustrating the will of the executive.
Hardly surprisingly, nearly all of the 110 MPs who voted against the motion to extend article 50 were from the Tories or Democratic Unionist Party - with only three Labour MPs trudging alongside them into the division lobby (Kate Hoey, Ronnie Campbell and Stephen Hepburn), as well as Frank Field, who is sitting as an independent after resigning the Labour whip.
Four cabinet ministers did not vote on the motion and some are interpreting this to mean that May does not have the backing of her party to pursue any soft Brexit deal with the Labour Party involving a customs union and the rest. Marcus Fysh, a prominent Eurosceptic Tory MP, said the vote proved that the government “does not have support for its current direction on the main purpose of its existence, inside the parliamentary party, the party in the country, or the wider country”.
Indeed, one cabinet source told The Guardian that Theresa May and the government are becoming “increasingly divorced” from the cabinet and the rest of the party. The prime minister has, of course, promised to go after her withdrawal agreement (or something akin) has been approved by parliament, but, given that the chances of this happening are slim, it is far from clear when she will actually resign. The Tories could be stuck with her for a while yet, particularly after the chair of the 1922 Committee curtly rebuffed calls from European Research Group MPs for an ‘indicative’ vote of no confidence in their leader.
Showing the tensions, international trade secretary Liam Fox wrote to the 1922 Committee on April 9 saying he could not support a customs union with the EU, as this would give other countries access to UK markets without any reciprocal arrangement. In fact, he argued, a negotiated customs union with the EU as a third party -as opposed to remaining inside the customs union as a full member-state - would mean being “stuck in the worst of both worlds”. That is, he explained, being “not only unable to set our own international trade policy but subject, without representation, to the policy of an entity over which MPs would have no democratic control”. In many ways, he is perfectly correct - a customs union of that nature represents a pointless Brexit, or Brino.
Fox’s letter followed a slightly odd outburst from Andrea ‘Loathsome’ Leadsom, the Brexiteer leader of the Commons, who told Sky News that it would be “fantastic” if Angela Merkel would try to “support a proper UK Brexit” by reopening the withdrawal agreement - specifically, if she agreed to put a time limit on the Irish backstop. This is one for the unicorns, as both May and EU leaders have repeatedly ruled out such a possibility. But the fact that Leadsom still clings on to this as “the best possible outcome” shows that some Brexiteers are getting desperate, feeling that the prize is slipping out of their hands. At the beginning of the week, anger bubbled over at a meeting of the Bruges Group think-tank - audience members shouting “Fuck the government” and repeatedly yelling “Traitor!” at every mention of Theresa May.
Having no option, but further enraging Brexiteers, the government has tabled an order enabling the European elections to be held in Britain if the country has not left the EU by the time they are due to take place on May 23 - the cabinet office stated that the elections would be automatically cancelled if Brexit, by some minor miracle, occurs before then. This means that we might see MEPs elected who never take up their seats because a deal has been struck, which according to some would be the end of the world. Then again, it is certainly the case that, while the prospect of European elections may frighten the Labour Party, it terrifies the Tories - for good reason. How on earth can they campaign properly in such an election? Who will actually hit the streets and knock on doors? Will the candidates abide by a common manifesto, and who will draw it up? Whatever the logistics, under such unfavourable conditions you would expect the Tories to get a drubbing. Who emerges as the winner is an entirely different question, of course, but, as the elections are conducted under proportional representation, it is far from inconceivable that a ‘leaver’ party will come first, whether the UK Independence Party or Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party - the suspicion being it is more likely to be the latter than the former. Labour will suffer too, it goes without saying, but not as much as the Tories.
A day before the emergency EU summit, Theresa May dashed around the continent to meet Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron to make the case for a short extension to the end of June. In a damning indictment of Downing Street’s strategy, Donald Tusk, the European Council president, declared - not unreasonably it has to be said - that the EU’s experience of “the deep divisions” within the Commons “give us little reason to believe that the ratification process can be completed by the end of June”. Donald does not believe in unicorns. Jean-Claude Juncker, the European commission president, favoured a longer extension in order to allow the maximum feasible amount of time for Westminster to find a way forward and “kick the can down the road” for a better day. There was a proposal for a break clause if a deal is passed in the meantime - adding a new word to the already expansive Brexit lexicography: a ‘flextension’.
With a considerable delay to Brexit, it seems certain that Britain will be asked to sign up to some sort of legally binding agreement that it has an “enhanced duty of sincere cooperation” with the EU. In other words, the UK government will have to promise that it will not obstruct the bloc’s internal workings or long-term planning mechanisms - as recently recommended by Jacob Rees-Mogg, who wants Britain to be “as difficult as possible”, “obstruct the putative EU army” and “block Mr Macron’s integrationist schemes”. Fellow ERGer Mark Francois, notorious for his obnoxious gobby mouth, fulminated about a long extension that would create “perfidious Albion on speed” and a “Trojan horse within the EU, which will utterly derail all your attempts to pursue a more federal project”. Look out, you foreigners - Britain has got your number. EU leaders must have been trembling in their boots.
In the words of a draft communiqué, under this “enhanced duty” the UK must “facilitate the achievement of the union’s tasks and refrain from any measure which could jeopardise the attainment of the union’s objectives”. This effectively means that Britain will be outside the room when it comes to matters such as the appointment of the new president of the European commission and the adoption of the top lines of the budget for the next commission term.
Up to now, the EU has displayed a remarkable degree of unity in the face of continual hissy fits from Britain - which has been outmanoeuvred by Brussels time and again. There is no particular reason to think that this unity of purpose will not continue.
Meanwhile, rather predictably, the talks between the Tories and Labour seem to have got nowhere - resuming on April 11, although it has been stressed that they remain at an “exploratory stage”. We have had two completely different versions of how the discussions have gone so far - with Labour saying, very plausibly, that May refuses to compromise and will not budge from her red lines: no freedom of movement, no second referendum, no general election ... Philip Hammond, on the other hand, has claimed that there are “no red lines” in the negotiations, where “nothing is ruled out”. He was “optimistic” ministers would soon reach an agreement with Jeremy Corbyn.
It can only be the case that these mutually incompatible accounts reflect divisors within the cabinet itself. The chancellor is determined to get a very soft Brexit, whilst the prime minister is determined - at least rhetorically - to preserve her precious red lines, maybe by giving the customs union another more palatable name (‘enhanced trade cooperation and alignment’ sounds good). But the Brexiteers have scented treachery - their hatred for the ‘remainer’ chancellor knows no bounds. They have accused Hammond of “deliberately touting his own view” and attempting to push May into signing up to a customs union - all of which is probably true. The justice secretary, David Gauke, was forced to deny that the prime minister had floated the idea of a free vote in parliament on a second referendum - an anathema to Brexiteers. The Tory civil war rages on.
You do not need to be a genius to know that the central areas of disagreement would be over a customs union, a ‘confirmatory’ referendum and, crucially, the possibility of Theresa May’s successor unpicking any agreement - the so-called ‘Boris lock’. Concretely, Labour wants to reopen the political declaration on the future relationship to include a full customs union and “close” relationship to the single market, and legal assurances that any deal will survive a change of Tory leader. You can bet your bottom dollar that some future Tory leadership candidates - perhaps most of them - will pledge to rip up Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement as part of their election pitch: reset to Year Zero. Labour, of course, also seeks greater protection for workers’ rights and the environment - something the Tories have said they would do on a number of occasions, but trying to get a concrete commitment from them is like trying to nail jelly to the ceiling.