by Brendan Donnelly, Director, The Federal Trust
BREXIT:THE CONSERVATIVE CENTRE CANNOT HOLD
The Minister for Exiting the European Union, Dominic Raab, last week published a number of “notifications” on the possibility of the UK’s leaving the European Union without a Withdrawal Agreement (“no deal Brexit”). On the same day, wide publicity was given to a letter from Jacob Rees-Mogg MP, chairman of the European Research Group (ERG), in which he criticised the Prime Minister’s handling of the Brexit negotiations. Aspects of both episodes vividly illustrate the dysfunctionality of today’s Conservative Party. Taken together, they throw considerable doubt upon the capacity of the present Conservative government to conclude any Withdrawal Agreement with the EU before March 2019.
The Brexit notifications are full of unconscious ironies. In the event of “no deal” the government apparently aspires to liberate the UK from the bureaucratic EU by imposing new swathes of red tape; it will emancipate itself from the tyranny of Brussels law-making by applying European rules and Brexit standards unilaterally; it will reaffirm British sovereignty in Northern Ireland by urging local firms concerned about Brexit to consult the government in Dublin; it will stockpile perishable medicines under the banner of ‘business as usual’ and a bacon sandwich in every pot. The inherently ludicrous nature of the Brexit project is never far from the surface.
But these internal paradoxes and contradictions reflect a deeper and more troubling reality: the governing Conservative Party is irredeemably split on the form that Brexit should take. The notifications attempt to address two entirely different Conservative audiences, those who believe that leaving without an agreement is at worst a manageable inconvenience; and those who have considerable doubts about the whole Brexit project but need to be reassured that the government is aware of the particular danger of leaving the EU in an abrupt and chaotic fashion. In consequence, business and other economic interests have found very little new of use for their planning in the notifications. As always over the course of the Brexit negotiations, it is the disputatious conversation within the Conservative Party that has priority over any attempt to come to grips with external reality, in the UK or elsewhere.
It was originally the ERG and its allies that pressed Mrs. May and her government to make public its plans in the event of “no deal”. Their thinking was that by so doing Mrs. May would improve her negotiating position in Brussels and avoid being forced by an absence of pre-planning into making later this year what the ERG would see as excessive concessions. These hopes will hardly have been met by the notifications, which on anything other than a superficial reading make clear the pressing dangers of a “no deal” Brexit for the British economy and the weakness of the British negotiating position. Particularly striking is the repeated recognition in the documents that even if there were no overall Withdrawal Agreement the United Kingdom would still be dependent after March next year upon specific agreements with the EU in such areas as aviation, exchange of information, transport and pharmaceuticals if serious economic disruption in this country is to be avoided. It must be an open question whether such specific agreements can be achieved after a breakdown of the general negotiations. The Union might have its own interest in coming to some such sectoral and temporary arrangements, but until now it has given priority to maintaining and demonstrating the integrity of its own legal and economic structures against “cherry-picking.” This priority is unlikely to change in the absence of a Withdrawal Agreement and the rancour inevitably thus generated.
Some commentators have claimed that it was only during the drafting of the notifications that it struck Mrs. May and her advisers that she could use them to address another group of Conservative MPs rather than the original ones. These MPs have probably reconciled themselves to Brexit as a principle but wish to see it carried out in as cautious and least harmful a way as possible. They will be reassured to learn from the notifications that the Prime Minister is aware of the dangers inherent in “no deal” and they may well draw the (probably correct) conclusion that she is doing what she can to avoid such a chaotic outcome. If she can reach a Withdrawal Agreement later in the year, Mrs. May will especially need the support of these mostly former “Remainer” MPs. She probably hopes to obtain it by inviting them regularly over the coming months to compare her potential Withdrawal Agreement, however unsatisfactory, with the ERG’s “no deal.”
The difficulty faced by Mrs. May in attaining any Withdrawal Agreement was, however, starkly underlined by the Rees-Mogg letter to local constituency association chairmen and MPs, with the recommendation that it be widely distributed among the Conservative membership. The letter’s author rejected in unambiguous terms the painfully agreed Chequers compromise of July, claiming that it was not the Brexit the British people had voted for. Although only a backbench MP, Mr. Rees-Mogg had no hesitation in calling upon the Prime Minister to “chuck Chequers” and in seeking the widest possible publicity for this disavowal of his party’s leader. The content of his letter and the blistering nature of his dissection of the Chequers compromise make it more than doubtful whether Jacob Rees-Mogg could ever accept any remotely plausible Withdrawal Agreement that Mrs. May might negotiate with the EU.
The deeper significance of the Rees-Mogg letter, however, lies not so much in its critical contents as the extraordinary confidence and brazenness with which its writer condemns his party leader in a public document. He says her Chequers proposal would “shackle us to the EU for ever” and that she should stop being “cowed by the EU’s threats.” He accuses her of failing to implement the Conservative manifesto of 2017 and argues that the White Paper after the Chequers compromise is not what “anyone would recognise as Brexit.” Mr Rees-Mogg knows that in adopting this hectoring tone he reflects widespread opinion within the Conservative Party. In any normally functioning party his disloyal public lecturing of a Conservative Party leader would attract widespread condemnation and possible disciplinary action. No such reaction has taken place, nor is there any prospect of anything similar occurring. Jacob Rees-Mogg knows that Mrs. May is in no position to restrain or discipline him. As far as European policy is concerned, the Conservatives have lost any sense of shared political identity that would lead either to self-discipline or central sanctions accepted as legitimate in defence of a common project.
In truth, the internal contradictions of the notifications and the provocative tone of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s letter aptly summarize the bitter conflict currently lacerating the Conservative Party. It is a conflict between the traditional, pragmatic and cautious party of Philip Hammond and perhaps by inclination Mrs. May and the ideologically-driven, iconoclastic and reckless party of Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg. Everywhere except in Westminster this conflict has been resolved in the shrinking Conservative Party in favour of Messrs Johnson and Rees-Mogg. The ERG does not dispose of the votes of the majority of Conservative MPs but its strength in the wider Conservative Party is formidable. The two contenders are therefore sufficiently evenly balanced within the party for neither to be able to land a fatal blow on its opponent. Neither side believes it is possible or even any longer desirable to seek accommodation with the other. Faced with the external necessity of conducting the Brexit negotiations, Mrs. May can only oscillate haplessly between the two parties of which she is the titular head. For the foreseeable future the Conservative Party will continue to be riven and immobilised by dissent on the European issue, with combatants able to enjoy only tactical successes.
Over the past twenty years the radical Eurosceptics in the Conservative Party have fought a brilliant and ruthless guerrilla campaign, which they have no intention of abandoning now. Their success in transforming the Party into the most effective vehicle of Euroscepticism in British politics (destroying UKIP in the process) means that any hope that Mrs. May could “take on” or “face down” her Eurosceptic critics by an act of political will is utterly impractical. Within 72 hours of its painful settlement, the Prime Minister’s rickety Chequers compromise was publicly and humiliatingly rejected by precisely the senior ministers whose ministerial tasks it would have been to implement it and who had initially accepted its terms. Mrs. May has neither the political nor personal authority to bring about political coherence on Brexit within her party.
WHAT LIES AHEAD
The implications of this impasse are clear. It is highly unlikely that Mrs. May will be able to assemble from within her party any significant majority for any Withdrawal Agreement acceptable to the EU. While the Union’s representatives gave the Chequers compromise a guarded welcome, it was always clear they regarded it as simply the first step towards politically realistic proposals. The reaction of wide sections of Conservative opinion against the Chequers document as too accommodating of the EU has shrivelled Mrs. May’s room for manoeuvre to nothing. While there is probably still a majority of Conservative MPs who might wish to avoid a “no deal” Brexit, the terms of the Lisbon Treaty’s Article 50 make the expression of their concerns exceptionally difficult. Failing a Withdrawal Agreement, the Article 50 deadline in March 2019 will take automatic effect unless Parliament as a whole initiates effective action to prevent it. It will not be enough for a Parliamentary majority to express by their negative votes their rejection of a “no deal” Brexit. There will need to be agreement within that majority on the next steps, be it a new General Election, a request to the EU to extend the negotiating deadline, a further referendum or even the withdrawal of the Article 50 notification. It is difficult to predict with confidence what, if any, these agreed next steps might be, not least because they would almost certainly require the EU-27 to concur in postponing the March deadline. The personal and political cross-currents within the House of Commons bear a disturbing resemblance to the paralysing dysfunction now hobbling the Conservative Party.
It is sometimes said, plausibly but misleadingly, that it would have been better for the British government to delay the Article 50 notification to permit more preparatory work on Brexit. This is to misunderstand the systemic dysfunction of the Conservative Party and its government on Europe. That substantial minority in the Cabinet favourable to Brexit had every interest in promoting as rapid a beginning of the withdrawal negotiations as possible. Some at least of them were reconciled from the beginning to leaving the EU with no agreement. Mrs. May and those around her were not politically strong enough to delay notification and, even if they had done so, no significant refinement of the Conservative negotiating position could have been achieved. The Conservative government would anyway have entered the Brexit negotiations with confused and unachievable goals, because only such an agenda would have been capable of satisfying the competing wings of the party. This stasis will continue over the coming months. In the same way as the referendum of 2016 was the direct result of internal Conservative disorder, that same disorder will make it impossible for Mrs. May’s government to negotiate any Withdrawal Agreement with the EU. It is an as yet unresolved question of British politics whether our Parliamentary system will be able to develop any coherent response to this challenge. If it does not, the UK will inevitably leave the European Union on 29th March 2019 in the most brutal and chaotic circumstances possible. Anarchy within the Conservative Party will have inflicted anarchic confusion on the United Kingdom’s relations with its most important political and economic partners.