criticism of the Prime Minister is that she prematurely triggered the Article
50 negotiations in March 2017 and did so without a realistic plan for their conduct.
If she had waited longer and planned better, her critics contend, she could
have negotiated a more acceptable Withdrawal Agreement and Political
Declaration than the texts she is now having such difficulty steering through
Parliament. It is certainly true that
Theresa May began the Brexit negotiations with no realistic plan. But no amount
of delay and no amount of planning would have allowed her ever to achieve
results acceptable to a majority of “Leave” voters and their Parliamentary
sympathisers, let alone to the electorate or to Parliament as a whole. “No
deal” was from the beginning the most likely outcome. The contradictory and
unrealisable expectations reposed in “Brexit” could never lead to an outcome
with which its partisans would be satisfied.
Four conclusions emerge from the series of votes on Brexit in
the House of Commons this week (29th January):
• First, this government is so paralysed by internal
division that it is incapable of pursuing any coherent policy in the negotiations.
As long as it is in office but not in power, the UK is therefore on track to
leave the EU on 29th March 2019 with “no deal.”
• Second, there is a majority of MPs, probably a significant
majority, who wish to avoid the UK’s leaving the European Union without a
• Third, this majority is not yet willing or able to impose
its will on a government that runs the risk of bringing this about.
• Fourth, tensions and divisions within the major parties
will make it difficult, although far from impossible, for Parliament to impose
its will on the government before the end-March deadline. The possibility of
the UK’s leaving the EU in two months with “no deal” having been agreed remains
as high as ever. Whether this anarchic event occurs will depend on the
interaction between the above distinct and contradictory conclusions emerging
from this week’s vote.
It is significant and appropriate that the Conservative MPs who voted on 15th January against the Prime Minister’s Withdrawal Agreement from the European Union should have been drawn from opposing wings of her Party. While the majority of her internal opponents came from the European Research Group, some came from a very different part of the political spectrum, like Dominic Grieve and Justine Greening, who favour a new referendum with the option to remain in the EU. The 2016 referendum was largely a product of divisions within the Conservative Party and the conduct of the Brexit negotiations has been dominated by the internal manoeuvrings within the Party. The Prime Minister’s attempts to please everyone within her fractious Party during the Brexit negotiations have ended up pleasing very few Conservative MPs outside the ranks of her government, members of which are bound to support her in a public vote.
In a recent article for the New York Times, the distinguished historian of the Conservative Party, Professor Tim Bale, argued that the “will to power” of the Conservative Party would enable it in the long term to reconstruct its inner cohesion, currently compromised by the Brexit debate. Professor Bale’s argument is controversial but, even if accurate from a historical perspective, it is highly unlikely to be reflected in the functioning of the Party over the crucial next three months. Last Wednesday’s ballot of Conservative MPs was at best a Pyrrhic victory for the Prime Minister. The 117 votes recorded against her probably if anything understated the degree of opposition to her proposed texts for the Withdrawal Agreement from the EU and its accompanying Political Declaration. It is clear she cannot possibly rely on her Parliamentary Party to steer these proposals through the House of Commons against the opposition of the Labour Party and others.
In the confused discussion surrounding the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration negotiated by Mrs. May with the EU 27, two particular criticisms are frequently voiced. Mrs. May, we are told on all sides, has failed to respect the result of the EU referendum of June 2016; and her failure is at least partly due to having triggered prematurely the Article 50 notification without a strategy for the negotiations. Both criticisms are unjust. The Agreement and Declaration are the logical and predictable outcome of the deluded vote for Brexit cast by 37% of the electorate in 2016; and there was no better plan available to her in 2017 or later for implementing Brexit than the path she chose. Continue reading Blame Brexit, not Theresa May→
In the documents released this week by the British government and the EU there is a striking contrast between the detailed and specific nature of the proposed Withdrawal Agreement (WA) and the cursory, imprecise nature of the accompanying Political Declaration (PD.) The WA is a binding legal document, creating bankable rights and obligations. The Political Declaration is a purely aspirational text, pointing towards a range of long-term outcomes for the next stage of the Brexit negotiations, and expressing the pious hope that these outcomes will be as benevolent as possible for all concerned.
The Conservative MP, Anna Soubry, stunned the Commons and the media earlier this week by asking rhetorically whether it is the Prime Minister or her fellow backbencher Jacob Rees-Mogg who “runs the country” when it comes to Brexit. The events of the past ten days, and particularly the Prime Minister’s acceptance of four wrecking amendments to the Brexit Customs Bill on Monday, give a clear answer to Anna Soubry’s question. Mrs May does not and cannot set her own course in the Brexit negotiations. Jacob Rees-Mogg and those who think like him have a veto on all her European policies, a veto they are now every day more confident and determined in applying. This veto is guaranteed by the dominance of radical Euroscepticism within Mrs May’s Conservative Party, a dominance that Westminster-based commentators often overlook. Continue reading Mrs May has no choice but to obey Jacob Rees-Mogg→
Last week saw two potentially important developments in the continuing campaign against Brexit. There was a significant defeat for the government in the House of Lords on the subject of the Customs Union (CU); and a coalition of pro-European groups launched a campaign to bring about a “People’s Vote” on the terms of the EU withdrawal agreement negotiated by Mrs. May and her ministers. These can only be initial steps in a process over the coming six months whose outcome is unpredictable. The former trade minister, Lord Digby Jones, was sufficiently concerned to warn that “they will DESTROY Brexit” while anti-Brexit campaigners will certainly hope that this is one European issue on which he will turn out to be correct. Continue reading Brexit: Anything could happen in the next half year→
After her speech yesterday about the Brexit negotiations, the Prime Minister was asked by a German journalist whether she thought Brexit was worth all the effort and disruption it entailed. Although British withdrawal from the EU is probably the most important national decision taken since the Second World War and it will inevitably define the success or otherwise of Mrs. May’s Premiership, she was unable or unwilling to answer this question. Instead, she answered a different question. There was no chance, she said, of the United Kingdom’s changing its mind on this issue. For Mrs. May, in the same way as Brexit means Brexit, the UK is leaving the European Union because it is leaving the European Union. Reflections about whether this is a desirable or rational course of action are beyond her pay grade.