Analysis: Glimmer of hope at end of rocky Brexit week
Poisonous atmosphere prevails as Tory infighting persists around Brexit-related Bills
Chief EU negotiator for Brexit Michel Barnier: has gently demolished Theresa May’s Chequers proposal. Photograph: John Thys/AFP/Getty
One of the most tumultuous fortnights in recent British political history ended on Friday with Theresa May doubling down on her opposition to the EU’s proposal for the Border backstop and Michel Barnier gently demolishing her Chequers proposal.
But after a week at Westminster that saw politics descend into its most toxic, a close reading of what May and Barnier said on Friday may provide a soft glimmer of hope for the Brexit negotiations.
As Conservative MPs exchanged angry barrages of invective across the Commons chamber during debates on Brexit-related Bills on Monday and Tuesday, veterans like Ken Clarke and Nicholas Soames said they had never seen the atmosphere within the party so poisonous. Remainers were incensed when the government accepted four amendments from Brexiteers around Jacob Rees-Mogg that appeared to undermine May’s Chequers proposal.
In remarks that have been viewed more than a million times on social media, Anna Soubry said her fellow Conservatives who backed a hard Brexit admitted privately that their course would lead to the wholesale loss of manufacturing jobs.
“What they have said in those private conversations is that the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs will be worth it to regain our country’s sovereignty. Tell that to the people who voted leave in my constituency. Nobody voted to be poorer, and nobody voted leave on the basis that somebody with a gold-plated pension and inherited wealth would take their jobs away from them,” she said.
After the Brexiteers’ show of strength on Monday, Tory Remainers sought to flex their muscle on Tuesday when they tabled amendments to a trade Bill. The government whips were alarmed when an amendment to keep Britain in the European Medicines Agency was unexpectedly approved. But the rebels fell a handful of votes short in the vote on a more important amendment that could have kept Britain in a customs union.
It emerged later that the whips were so nervous about the votes that they asked some Conservative MPs to break “pairing” arrangements with opposition MPs. Pairing is a longstanding parliamentary convention under which pairs of MPs on opposite sides agree not to vote if one is unable to come to Westminster, often because of illness, pregnancy, maternity leave or official ministerial engagements.
When Liberal Democrat Jo Swinson, who has a three-week-old baby, discovered that Conservative Party chairman Brandon Lewis had broken their pair and voted in the two closest votes, she accused the government of cheating. Lewis and chief whip Julian Smith apologised, saying the breaking of the pair was the result of an honest mistake, an explanation repeated in the House by the prime minister on Wednesday.
That story fell under suspicion, however, when it was reported that Smith had asked other Conservative MPs to break their pairs, although they had refused. On Friday, May was still resisting pressure to sack the chief whip but the episode reinforced the impression at Westminster of a government reduced to desperate measures to stay in control of Brexit.
Boris Johnson used his resignation statement on Wednesday to attack the Chequers plan as Brexit in name only and to warn the prime minister that she must abandon it if she is to unite her party.
In Belfast, May appeared to be shoring up her position with the DUP and Conservative Brexiteers who are unhappy with the central role the Border backstop has occupied in the Brexit negotiations. She said the EU’s backstop proposal would violate the Belfast Agreement’s principle of consent by creating a new border within the UK.
“Under their proposal, Northern Ireland would be represented in trade negotiations and in the World Trade Organisation on tariffs by the European Commission, not its own national government. The economic and constitutional dislocation of a formal ‘third country’ customs border within our own country is something I will never accept and I believe no British prime minister could ever accept,” she said.
The tone and context of May’s speech and its old-fashioned unionism, which sounded at times like the lord lieutenant’s welcoming speech at a Hillsborough tea party in 1955, left the impression of fighting talk. But the proposals she was attacking are not really part of the commission’s demands at all and Barnier sounded a conciliatory note as he offered to change the draft backstop proposal and to make regulatory checks as minimal as possible.
As Westminster prepares to break up for the summer next week, the prime minister may have given herself room for manoeuvre on the backstop by erecting a straw man on customs and saying nothing about regulatory checks on either side of the Irish Sea.