May’s Exit from Brexit

Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May listens to the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, at the start of their meeting at 10 Downing Street, London, Britain, July 24, 2018. (Matt Dunham/Pool via Reuters)

The headline British news on Brexit is that Prime Minister Theresa May has taken personal charge of negotiations with the EU. Those negotiations will aim for the settlement the cabinet adopted at Chequers, one that keeps Britain inside EU rules and regulations and has prompted the resignation of several top government officials.

Under the new arrangement, the job of Brexit secretary Dominic Raab will be effectively confined to preparing for a “no deal” Brexit. But since May prevented his predecessor from making such preparations earlier and now argues that a “no deal” departure would be an unimaginable disaster, that looks increasingly like an exercise in CYA just in case May fails to persuade Brussels to accept her surrender. Remainer politicians and pundits add to the pressure for an outcome that keeps Britain inside EU rules and regulations by claiming that if Britain leaves without the “goodwill” of Brussels, vital food and medicines will run out within two weeks. It’s not clear why this would happen, since food and medicine are readily available on the world market and, as Adam Smith explained as long ago as 1776, are sold not out of the goodwill of their suppliers but from self-interest. Nor can most Brits see much evidence of goodwill in Brussels, rather hostility and an openly expressed desire to punish.

This rising hysteria of Remainer arguments may be due to the fact that the Chequers package, devised in secret by May and her aide Olly Robbins, is meeting massive and stubborn resistance from the public and in particular from the Tory public. Moreover, this resistance seems to harden the more the policy is explained — in part because, as the distinguished Tory lawyer Martin Howe, QC, points out with forensic relentlessness, most of the explanations are, ahem, terminological inexactitudes.

It’s far from certain that May’s white paper would win a parliamentary vote even if accepted unchanged by Brussels. If the government’s flagship policy is rejected, however, what then? On the same day as the announcement of the government’s new team, Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg questioned Robbins before a Commons committee about how the new Brexit white paper had come to be written. With marked politeness he made clear that he was not trying to pin responsibility for it on Robbins: “I attribute no blame to you at all because you are answerable to the prime minister.” It didn’t sound like an exculpation.

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