Friday 19 July 2019

Brexit: May's nightmare before Christmas

This week's failure to progress a deal on Britain exiting the EU has just as much to do with Theresa May's own political problems as with the complexity of the task

Britain's prime minister Theresa May arrives at the European Council in Brussels
Britain's prime minister Theresa May arrives at the European Council in Brussels

Peter Geoghegan

Theresa May could have been forgiven for thinking she had, finally, turned a corner. Having endured a torrid summer dominated by talk of leadership challenges and internecine warfare, the embattled British prime minister emerged from the recent Conservative party conference with a spring in her step - even shuffling her way on to the stage in Birmingham to the sound of Abba's 'Dancing Queen' earlier this month.

May's previous leader's addresses to the Tory faithful had been notable for all the wrong reasons: in 2016, a remark, "if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere", drew comparisons with Adolf Hitler; and last year May was gripped by a convulsive coughing fit while behind her, the party's slogans literally fell off the wall.

This time around the Conservative leader held her nerve. Her conference speech was well received by both press and party. Former foreign secretary Boris Johnson, her chief rival, was largely conspicuous by his absence.

Then, in the days that followed Birmingham, talk grew that May could be set to realise what once seemed impossible: a Brexit deal with the European Union.

September's EU summit in Salzburg had been a nadir for May, whose premiership has wanted for low points. In Austria, a series of European leaders rejected the cherry-picking of her Chequers plans for the UK to leave the single market but stay in a customs 'arrangement' for goods but not services.

European Council president Donald Tusk warned that without "maximum progress" on the issue of avoiding a hard border in Ireland, there would be no deal in October, long held up as the deadline for talks.

The mood music, however, appeared to improve markedly in the weeks after Salzburg. There was talk of flexibility on both sides, with May seemingly willing to honour the 'backstop' agreed last December that would see Northern Ireland remaining in regulatory alignment with the single market and customs union after Brexit.

Wednesday evening was pencilled in as a key moment. May's scheduled speech to the EU27 leaders before the start of a dinner for the European heads of state could be the opportunity to unveil a major breakthrough in the often-cantankerous Brexit discussions.

But such hopes were dashed long before European heads of state and government had even sat down to their starters in a room on the third floor of the Europa building in Brussels. Instead, days before the summit, EU leaders scrapped plans to make public a draft declaration on the future trade deal with the UK after chief negotiator Michel Barnier said that the necessary "decisive progress" in talks had failed to materialise.

Instead, on Wednesday, May was given only a few minutes to repeat assurances there would be no hard border in Ireland, one more giving a commitment to a "legally operable" backstop in a bilateral meeting with Leo Varadkar. But there was no sign of any significant shift in Brussels, indeed talk grew that the UK's transition period could be extended past the end of 2020 to provide more time to address the border issue, a move many pro-Brexit Conservatives would bitterly oppose.

Once again, the latest failure appears to have its roots in May's personal political difficulties.

Over the past week, just as a deal between the EU and the UK appeared possible, opposition has grown both within May's own backbenchers and from the Democratic Unionists on whose support her minority administration depends.

Tory Brexiteers said that they had as many as 80 MPs that would vote against any deal based on the Chequers proposals. DUP leader Arlene Foster warned that any agreement that saw a border in the Irish Sea would be anathema. Her lines were "blood red", she warned.

Such public opposition prompted Britain's Brexit secretary Dominic Raab to make an unscheduled dash to Brussels on Sunday to hold crisis talks with Barnier. This chaotic shuttle diplomacy undermined what is becoming the greatest fear in Brussels, and elsewhere: that an agreement can be reached between the EU and Theresa May's negotiators, but the weak prime minister lacks the support necessary to get the deal through the House of Commons.

Defeat for May's Brexit bill could spark a constitutional crisis in Britain, with no clear outcome. May's strategy for dealing with this difficulty has been to attempt to keep the restive Eurosceptics in her own party on side.

Within days of becoming leader in July 2016, she announced a cabinet reshuffle that saw senior Leave-supporting Tories given key cabinet positions: Boris Johnson and other lesser Brexit lights were all given portfolios by a prime minister seemingly nervous that she had backed Remain in the previous month's referendum, while after the 2017 election she reinstalled another Brexiteer, Michael Gove, to the cabinet.

Former Tory prime minister John Major famously called his Eurosceptic cabinet colleagues "the bastards". May has learned - or should have learned - that time has done little to mellow the most fervent Brexiteers. This was revealed most starkly earlier this summer when May invested most of what remained of her political capital in her Chequers proposals for Brexit only to see Johnson and two other ministers resign in protest at that they saw as a dilution of the 'will of the people'. Johnson, now on the backbenches, has become a vociferous critic. Freed from the shackles of cabinet collective responsibility - a stricture that never seemed to unduly weigh upon him - the erstwhile former foreign secretary has used his weekly Daily Telegraph columns to launch regular attacks on May, even comparing her Brexit proposals to a "suicide vest" that would leave the UK as a "colony" of the EU.

The voluble Johnson is not the only May cabinet appointment that has gone rogue. As Brexit secretary for two years until Chequers, David Davis often struggled to grasp details, especially on Ireland. Out of office, Davis has declared that the border issue is a confection easily solved by technological advancements and repeatedly called on May to abandon Chequers for what Brexiteers call 'Super Canada', a free-trade deal that would include reneging on the Irish border backstop agreed last December.

Other one-time ministers have been equally troublesome. Former Brexit minister Steve Baker - one of the most ardent Brexiteers in British politics - has become a figurehead for the most hardline Eurosceptics in May's party since resigning over Chequers. While Brexiteers such as Michael Gove are expected to support any deal that involves leaving the European Union, Baker and his colleagues in the European Research Group have warned that they could vote down the Brexit deal.

Those votes could be crucial. May's parliamentary arithmetic could not be tighter. Her minority government relies on the support of 10 DUP MPs to pass legislation. Even if estimates of 80 Tory Brexit rebels talked up by Baker are fanciful, there seems to be at least 20 or 30 hardline Tories that would reject any deal based on Chequers. There are also a handful of pro-EU Conservatives who are expected to vote against any agreement that sees the UK leave the Single Market and the Customs Union.

If May cannot get the backing of all of her own MPs for any Brexit deal she brings back from Brussels then she would need the support of both the DUP and a sizable number of opposition votes. Neither are a given. The Democratic Unionists have proven themselves far less pliable than some Tories assumed.

Having embarrassed May by very publicly forcing a volte-face over the Irish backstop last December, the DUP has consistently held a sword of Damocles over May - and, by extension the 'confidence and supply' arrangement upon which the Tory government rests.

British commentators have frequently struggled to understand the DUP's position. Last summer, many in London - including prominent pro-Europeans - quietly welcomed the DUP's new role as kingmakers, believing that the unionists would be implacably opposed to a hard border in Ireland and, so, would soften May's Brexit red lines.

But, for many in the DUP, avoiding a return to the border in Ireland is at best a minimal concern. For some, the prospect of checkpoints near border towns is positively welcomed.

The collapse of the Stormont assembly has also radically altered the DUP's internal dynamics, strengthening the most stridently anti-EU elements within the party. With Foster as a leader with no parliament, and the DUP in a position of unrivalled power in Westminster, deputy leader Nigel Dodds MP has emerged as the party's real power broker.

Where some in DUP's Stormont ranks seemed at best lukewarm on Brexit - former finance minister Simon Hamilton famously refused to tell an interviewer how he voted in the EU referendum - Dodds and many of his Westminster colleagues are long-term Eurosceptics. Dodds was even on the board of the official Vote Leave campaign. The prospects of his DUP colleagues supporting anything that is acceptable to Dublin seems remote.

So, could May find support on the opposition benches? Maybe. But probably not. The Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party are both implacably opposed to Brexit. Labour's position is far more protean. At the recent Labour conference, leader Jeremy Corbyn left the door ajar for the possibility of a second referendum on Brexit.

May can count on the support of a small number of pro-Brexit Labour MPs, most notably Northern Irish born Kate Hoey. But this cadre numbers no more than half a dozen. This contingent would likely be swelled by some Labour members representing solidly Leave constituencies but May would still likely find herself short of the numbers needed to get any Brexit agreement through parliament.

The difficulty May faces in getting any deal through her parliament has led to a growing concern that Britain is heading for a no-deal exit, even if an agreement can be reached with Brussels. A survey published this week by King's College, London found 44pc of British voters expected to leave without a deal. Just 14pc said that Brexit will increase living standards over the next five years.

Despite growing concern about Brexit, the dominant political mood in the UK remains one of "just get the whole thing over with". The possibility has been mooted of an extension to the Article 50 process, to allow time for more negotiation. But enthusiasm for this appears limited, especially on the EU side with European parliament elections due next May.

"We could extend the Brexit process by a few days to get a deal passed in the respective parliaments but we couldn't extend by months. That would be a problem," an EU source told me in Brussels recently.

Meantime, Brexit is putting further strain on an already disunited kingdom. Scottish unionists have said they will oppose any bespoke deal for Northern Ireland, fearing it could inflame calls for Scottish independence.

Around 90pc of Conservative Leave voters think that the break-up of the UK was a price worth paying for Brexit, according to recent polling. A similar proportion felt the same about the potential impact of Brexit on peace in Northern Ireland.

While Theresa May has attempted to reposition herself as the Dancing Queen, Brexit is looking more and more like the hokey-cokey. British negotiators are in, May's parliamentarians are out. After this week, the chances of the dance ending with a deal before the UK leaves the European Union in March looks ever more uncertain.

May's horrors in numbers


The percentage of Britons expecting to exit the EU without a deal


The percentage of Britons expecting Brexit to increase their living standards in next five years


The percentage of Britons who see the UK economic growth rate falling after Brexit.

* Source: Kings College

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