Brexit: The dream is over. The nightmare continues
With Davis and Johnson gone, can any form of Brexit now find a Westminster majority?
When Theresa May returned to her country retreat at Chequers on Friday, her plan for Brexit was under attack in the House of Commons, in the right-wing press, from Conservative activists around Britain and from her lunch guest, Donald Trump. Seldom has a week been quite such a long time in politics.
A week ago the prime minister left Chequers in triumph after a day-long cabinet meeting that left her Brexiteer ministers apparently vanquished, with Boris Johnson proposing a toast to her over dinner. The cabinet had signed off on May’s proposal for a soft Brexit that would keep the United Kingdom closely aligned with the EU, following European regulations on goods and agrifood.
Backbench Brexiteers had grumbled when leaked extracts of the plan appeared to admit that it would make a trade deal with the United States more difficult. But over the weekend the Brexiteer ministers Michael Gove, Andrea Leadsom and Chris Grayling toured the broadcast studios to defend the Chequers plan as a pragmatic and principled route to realising the 2016 referendum vote.
‘This Government now has the strong stench of Munich about it,’ one Telegraph reader wrote. ‘The Cabinet is largely composed of unreconstructed appeasers’
David Davis’s resignation late on Sunday night was a shock but not a surprise, as the former secretary of state for exiting the European Union had long been unhappy as he was frozen out of negotiations with Brussels by May and her top Brexit adviser, Olly Robbins.
But Johnson’s decision to follow suit was a bombshell, made all the more incendiary by a resignation letter that accused the prime minister of allowing the Brexit dream to die. “Brexit should be about opportunity and hope. It should be a chance to do things differently, to be more nimble and dynamic, and to maximise the particular advantages of the UK as an open, outward-looking global economy. That dream is dying, suffocated by needless self-doubt,” he wrote.
He said the prime minister’s plan would oblige the UK to follow in perpetuity the very European Union directives Eurosceptics have railed against for years, with no influence over their content. “In that respect we are truly headed for the status of colony – and many will struggle to see the economic or political advantages of that particular arrangement. What is even more disturbing is that this is our opening bid. This is already how we see the end state for the UK – before the other side has made its counter-offer. It is as though we are sending our vanguard into battle with the white flags fluttering above them.”
Johnson, who brought in a professional photographer to capture an image of him signing the letter, was reflecting a feeling of betrayal widely shared among Brexiteers on the Conservative backbenches and among the party’s members. For a number of days this week the Daily Telegraph’s letters page was entirely composed of letters about the Chequers plan, almost all of them hostile and many accusing the prime minister of treason.
“This Government now has the strong stench of Munich about it. The Cabinet is largely composed of unreconstructed appeasers. Sadly, there is no Churchill to lead us out of this unlovely swamp,” wrote Richard Skilbeck from Berkshire.
Many other correspondents drew on Munich and the appeasement of Hitler, but this didn’t go far enough for Chris Rome from Thruxton, in Hampshire.
“We no longer have a Chamberlain as our leader but rather, I fear, a Pétain. The Conservative Party will not forgive the knife in the back of the British people wielded by Mrs May but forged by her ‘advisers’,” he wrote.
While some backbench Brexiteers made noises about throwing May overboard, most calculated that any such attempt was destined to fail. It takes just 15 per cent of Conservative MPs – which means 48 in the current parliament – to trigger a confidence vote in the party leader but more than 50 per cent – or at least 159 – to win it, and Downing Street made clear on Monday that May would fight any challenge to her leadership. If she won such a vote she could not be challenged for another 12 months, by which time the UK is already due to be out of the EU.
The European Research Group, a part publicly funded organisation of Brexiteer Conservative MPs led by Jacob Rees-Mogg (formally, it provides the MPs with research services at Westminster), has instead opted for a guerrilla campaign aimed at forcing the prime minister to ditch her plan. It started with a series of staggered resignations of junior ministers and senior party figures, including the Conservative vice-chairs Ben Bradley and Maria Caulfield.
Few outside Westminster or within it have heard of Bradley or Caulfield, but the significance of their move lies in the fact that neither is regarded as at the extreme end of the Brexit debate. Bradley is a former Remain supporter who represents a seat that voted Leave, and Caulfield is a former Leave supporter representing a Remain seat.
In their letters of resignation both cited May’s commitment last December to agree a backstop to prevent a hard Border as a key factor in pushing her towards a soft Brexit. “For me the backstop agreement for Northern Ireland was neither necessary or constructive for the future prosperity of the UK. Having strong links to the Republic of Ireland, I feel the backstop position is not appropriate and should have been rejected. It has been used by the EU as a way of blocking a mutually beneficial deal,” Caulfield wrote.
Brexiteers and their allies in the DUP have long complained that the issue of the Border has been deliberately overblown by Ireland and the EU, as a way of pushing the UK into closer alignment with the European Union after Brexit. Under the EU’s backstop proposal Northern Ireland would remain in the customs union and in parts of the single market, a scenario that would require some checks on goods moving between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
The problem for the Brexiteers is that Brussels has made clear that, if there is no deal on the backstop, there will be no withdrawal agreement and, crucially, no transition period
May has rejected this proposal as creating unacceptable barriers between parts of the United Kingdom, suggesting instead that the backstop should apply to the whole of the UK. Brussels rejects this as offering Britain a back door into the single market that would allow the UK to enjoy many of its benefits without obligations such as the free movement of people.
The problem for the Brexiteers is that Brussels has made clear that, if there is no deal on the backstop, there will be no withdrawal agreement and, crucially, no transition period. The transition arrangement, under which customs and single-market access would remain unchanged until December 2020, is essential for British business.
Without it Britain would crash out of the EU in March 2019 with potentially catastrophic economic consequences, and most Brexiteers acknowledge that the government has run out of time to put adequate contingency plans in place.
Faced with this reality, Brexiteer ministers such as Michael Gove have concluded that it is best to leave the EU in March 2019 on terms they see as imperfect and work to improve them afterwards. Daniel Hannan, a Conservative MEP who shares this view, compared it this week to the approach of the pro-Treaty side in the early years of Irish independence.
“When the Irish Free State left the UK, in 1921, there were all sorts of conditions about Treaty ports and oaths of supremacy and residual fiscal payments. And what very quickly became apparent was not just that those things were unenforceable once the split had been realised; it was that everyone in Britain kind of lost interest in enforcing them,” he said. “And although there were some difficulties along the way in the 1920s, it turned out to have been better to have grabbed what looked like an imperfect independence and then built on it rather than risking the entire process.”
The hardline Brexiteers will take their guerrilla campaign on to the floor of the House of Commons next week, when MPs debate a trade bill. Rees-Mogg and his allies have tabled a series of amendments aimed at killing off a key part of May’s plan, a proposal for a “facilitated customs arrangement” that would see Britain collecting tariffs on behalf of the EU.
The amendments have little chance of success, but they will allow for a Brexiteer show of strength aimed at unsettling the prime minister. May appears, however, to be determined to stick to her plan as she waits for an official response from Brussels.
The initial EU reaction has been gentle but noncommittal, and much of May’s plan is unacceptable in Brussels, where it is seen as an attempt to cherry-pick the single market. Although the European Union’s determination to protect the integrity of the single market is viewed at Westminster as being driven by the European Commission, a number of member states are worried about the economic consequences of offering Britain a competitive advantage after Brexit.
When negotiations in Brussels resume next week, Britain hopes the EU will see May’s plan as the basis for a discussion on their relationship after Brexit, to be negotiated alongside the outstanding issues in the withdrawal agreement. Downing Street says this week’s white paper has not changed Britain’s position on the backstop, which it still insists must be on a UK-wide basis.
Behind the scenes, however, there are whispers of a possible compromise – hinted at last week by Michel Barnier when he said that only a limited number of EU laws would continue to apply to Northern Ireland and that checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea would be strictly “technical and operational”.
Conservative MPs, including Brexiteers, acknowledge privately that Northern Ireland has been treated differently from the rest of the UK in the past and continues to have a separate regime for animal health that requires checks on livestock entering from the rest of the UK.
Some Brexiteers hope that unlocking the backstop, even if it antagonises the DUP, could open the way for a harder Brexit based on a free-trade deal such as that the European Union has with Canada. This could require the votes of Brexiteers on the Labour benches were the DUP to reject it.
May’s allies are also eyeing the Labour benches, however, in the hope that pro-EU Labour MPs could vote for a soft-Brexit plan, allowing her to secure a majority without the support of the hard Brexiteers on her own benches.
But there may be no majority at Westminster for any of the forms of Brexit now on offer, and hard-line Brexiteers are confident that if MPs rejects a deal May returns with from Brussels, Britain will automatically leave the EU. A no-deal Brexit commands the support of only about one in 10 in the Commons, and the majority is likely to find a way to ensure that it doesn’t happen.
That could mean delaying Brexit by requesting an extension of the two-year article 50 negotiating period, a delay that could last for years or lead to a second referendum that could stop Brexit altogether. If that happens the Telegraph’s letter writers will have to find a brand new lexicon of treachery and betrayal.