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Anatomy of the Brexit Crisis

British Prime Minister Theresa May at 10 Downing Street, JUne 20, 2018. (Toby Melville/Reuters)
The prime minister covertly tried to impose a ‘third way’ and now faces a backlash.

A  massive political and constitutional crisis is gathering pace in Britain. It began earlier this year, perhaps as early as February, when Prime Minister Theresa May began to run her own private policy on Brexit through officials in Downing Street and the Cabinet Office — a policy that was different from, and arguably opposite to, the Brexit policy that had the approval of the cabinet and the public. But it emerged that something unorthodox might be happening only two weeks ago, when reports began to circulate in Whitehall and Westminster that the prime minister would advise a Chequers cabinet meeting on the next Friday to choose a hitherto unknown “third way” rather than two earlier options for leaving the European Union Customs Union.

When an alarmed David Davis — the secretary of state for exiting the European Union — saw her on the Wednesday before Chequers (interestingly, the Fourth of July), she allegedly denied to him that any such third-way document existed. In the following two days, however, leaks from Downing Street made it clear that a showdown of some kind was in the offing. One aide, apparently thinking he was some kind of hard-nosed White House staffer from the West Wing television series, told the media that if a cabinet minister resigned at Chequers, he would immediately lose his official car and be compelled to stand on principle and take the long walk of shame to pick up a taxi at the gate.

I’ll let an extract from my account in the Australian pick up the story from there:

That didn’t seem the worst of threats — it’s a fifteen minutes stroll through pleasant countryside. But it did set the tone for one of the least agreeable country-house weekends in history — one apparently designed by someone with training in East German psy-ops and hostage psychology management: Isolate them in a remote location, cut off their escape, take away their phones, give them complex bureaucratic papers to read, cut the time for reading short, examine them on their reading, confuse them, mock any mistakes they make, demand they sign the document, threaten them with non-personhood if they refuse, and if they do refuse, tell them the decision has already been made by the Party and that their refusal is meaningless. It was a brilliant technique — call it Applied Stockholm Syndrome — and it worked. Most of those present nodded smilingly and signed; some were reluctant but they signed too in order not to spoil the occasion, and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson even proposed a toast to Big Sister. Happy to be still in power, they all got into their cars and returned to London.

Bounce people into reckless commitments, however, and after a little reflection they bounce themselves out again. The commitments had been to an entirely new Brexit strategy that seemed to erase all of May’s famous red lines against what she would not accept in talks with Brussels. It was the kind of thing that gives shyster lawyers a bad name: Britain would leave the EU Customs Union but then join a common customs territory with the EU; leave the single market but accept “ongoing harmonization” with EU regulations; leave the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice but then instruct U.K. courts to follow ECJ precedents. May insisted that these proposals were the fulfillment of her public pledges. That was too much for anyone who believes that 2+2=4. David Davis resigned on Sunday evening; his junior minister, Steve Baker, did so the next morning; Boris followed that afternoon; and the resignations — of junior ministers, parliamentary political secretaries (the first step on the political ladder), party officials, constituency chairmen, and ordinary activists — have been flowing ever since.

One result of these resignations was that tongues were loosened. Freed from collective responsibility and angered by May’s duplicitous treatment, both Davis and Baker charged that, in effect, she had set up Davis’s Department for Exiting the EU (DexEU) as a kind of Potemkin ministry to make it appear that Brexit was going ahead while a small cabal of officials — notably her chief civil-service adviser, Olly Robbins, in Downing Street — negotiated an entirely different outcome. Conducting such an exercise in deception meant such things as reaching agreements with Davis intended to be diluted or broken outright or even lying to Davis’s face. Some DexEU officials had to be party to this deception and therefore disloyal to their ministers, while others were working at tasks not intended by Number Ten to be achieved. That’s very definitely not how the “Rolls-Royce” U.K. civil service is supposed to work.

Yet there was a paradoxical result of this dishonesty: DexEU ministers and officials in fact produced a white paper on how to achieve a Brexit that meant Brexit. Indeed, they expected it to be the main topic before the cabinet. They didn’t hear about the May-Rollins Brexit plan until just before — or, in some cases, after — Chequers. And of course, when the cabinet adopted that plan without open dissent that Friday, the general (and largely unconsidered) assumption was that the rival DexEU white paper would sink deep into the files and never emerge.

That’s why the chief Remainer talking point after Chequers was that the Leavers had had two years to come up with a Brexit plan and failed to do so. Since they couldn’t put up, they should shut up. This argument was everywhere on television, newspapers, and the Web, and some intelligent people claimed to find it powerful.

Then Baker disclosed the existence of the DexEU white paper, which Paul Goodman then published in full on ConHome, the online notice board of the Tory party. It was a bombshell. It showed in practical, hard-to-forget terms the depth of official duplicity. It blew out of the water the idea that there was no alternative to May’s non-Brexit Brexit. And it provided the Brexiteers with a detailed plan for actually leaving the EU. Of course, a number of perfectly reasonable plans for doing that — Canada Plus, remaining in the EEA or EFTA and leaving gradually, exiting without a deal and trading under World Trade Organization rules as Britain does for almost 60 percent of its trade — have been advanced by several respected economists, including Roger Bootle, Andrew Lilco, and Rupert Darwall. But the DexEU plan came with all the technical details, comprehensive coverage, and bureaucratic prose of a civil-service document, and that’s a comfort blanket for certain minds.

Opinion polls showed that support for the Tory government and for May personally was falling precipitately.

All this created an atmosphere at Westminster of instability, uncertainty, even chaos, and right on cue Donald Trump arrived. There followed three days of diplomatic pratfalls, insults, inappropriate political interventions, minor court discourtesies, apologies, and at last charm offensives until the Donald left a relieved Theresa May for Helsinki. It was Hellzapoppin’ stuff, but apparently it went down quite well with about two-thirds of the Brits, probably because Trump said nice things about Britain in comparison with the vituperative attacks we hear from Brussels. Also it was highly entertaining — see Freddy Gray’s reports for the London Spectator. But it left an impact on two serious matters. Trump managed to get the Europeans to concede that this time they’d have to hike their defense spending. Second, he said — and despite all the blunders and apologies he didn’t retract the statement — that May’s version of Brexit was not compatible with the U.S.–U.K. free-trade deal he was offering. People took that on board: Obama may have threatened, but May was actually sending Britain to “the back of the queue.” It was yet one more sign that her version of Brexit was not meeting her red lines, what people had voted for, or what Brexiteers in her own party plainly wanted.

Even while Trump was in the U.K., her support began to collapse. Opinion polls showed that support for the Tory government and for her personally was falling precipitately. Labour took a four-point lead as the Tories fell from 42 to 36 percent. Worse, UKIP rose by five points, or almost the same number of voters the Tories lost, to 8 percent. UKIP again poses a serious electoral threat to the Tories. Reports from the constituencies showed massive anger and rejection of the May policy, with stories of party members resigning, burning their party cards, and vowing never to vote Tory again. To staunch this hemorrhage, May gave a television interview. It fell short of a disaster, but it gave very little reassurance to those who feel that she has made too many concessions to Brussels in the talks so far and that she will probably make more.

Why had she done so? asked the interviewer. “We could’ve said,” she replied, “well, let’s stick where we are and see what happens, and risk actually ending up with a chaotic leaving, . . . or we could’ve said, okay let’s look at moving forward, let’s look at an alternative proposal.”

So she retreated from her original policy and will now present a new one — the Chequers one — to the EU negotiators. Will she say on the next occasion, asked the interviewer, “No more concessions, no more changes, no dodging, no weaving”?

Her reply was: “We’re going to sit down in negotiations.”

That was hardly reassuring — especially when she listed the sticking points on which she would never yield:

In my view there are certain things that are non-negotiable. It is non-negotiable that free movement will end, we will end free movement. It is non-negotiable that we’re coming out of the customs union, so we can have our independent trade policy, we will do that, we will come out of the customs union. It is non-negotiable that the ECJ will no longer have jurisdiction in the United Kingdom.

Here the problem is that these are the very issues on which Brexiteers, Tories, and even many Remainers think that she has already yielded; she is, they conclude, merely attempting to disguise her concessions in technical bafflegab and bureaucratic legalisms so that Britain goes Out from the EU customs union but Into the common customs territory via a revolving door with darkened windows.

Significantly, when May was twice asked if she had informed Davis about this particular change in policy, she twice evaded the question and then uncomfortably changed the subject. Davis himself, having quietly objected to this treatment in his dignified resignation letter, did not return to the topic in his first post-resignation parliamentary speech on Monday but delivered a cool, analytical argument on how the technical difficulties of Brexit had been greatly exaggerated. On the other hand, he didn’t need to return to it. Everyone now senses what had happened.

Not surprisingly, May’s performance had not reassured many Tories either in or out of parliament by Monday. There were rumors that the number of signatures to force the prime minister to a leadership election was rising close to the required 48. Whips were allegedly asking MPs known to have sent them to withdraw them. Conservative HQ invited local Tory leaders to a Downing Street briefing on the Chequers proposals, and the PM herself was drafted in to reassure those who couldn’t make the trip to Westminster over the telephone. And, not quite finally, when Tory Brexiteers challenged the government on four amendments to its trade bill that would arguably undermine May’s Chequers package further, ministers avoided a likely defeat by surrendering and accepting all four amendments.

That retreat was a belated recognition of two realities. The first reality is that the Tory party in the country is overwhelmingly supportive of Brexit and hostile to May and others who want to dilute it. Ministers cannot sell Chequers or any “soft Brexit” to its activists or its voters. That’s a political reality that Tory MPs will have to accommodate to survive. (Labour MPs in Leave constituencies, incidentally, will have to accommodate the same reality.)

Whichever way it goes, it will heighten the tensions of this growing crisis, and it’s not impossible that it will provoke an early election.

The second reality is that a much larger majority of Tory MPs within the party supports Leave than was previously believed. (That belief was rooted in the relative numbers of MPs who chose Leave or Remain prior to the referendum. When those choices were made, the Tory leadership was strongly Remain and almost everyone thought Remain would win. So they greatly exaggerate Remain’s strength on the Tory benches.) What is now the true picture? It’s probably the case that the House of Commons as a whole has a Remain majority, but that majority is a modest one, and it could well become a Leave majority in an acute constitutional crisis, or to defeat an opposition vote of no confidence in the government, or if the Tory whips apply strong pressure on dissenters to vote.

Conventional wisdom on this is moving on from the view that the House has a Remain majority (and so would never pass a hard Brexit) to the view that there is now no majority in the House for any kind resolution, hard or soft, of the Brexit crisis. But when opinion is shifting, as it has been since the Chequers meeting, it’s hard to put limits on where it will end up. The fact that yesterday four Brexiteer wrecking amendments were accepted by the government and then passed by small majorities was rightly seen by Remainers as a serious defeat. It signified that if ministers could repeat this successful alliance again and again, they would be able to get a harder Brexit into law than anyone thought possible a month ago. It angered them because they could see where it might lead.

So they decided to strike back right away and inflict a defeat on the government from the opposite direction — obviously in the hope of deterring any further drift toward Brexit. This evening they have put down a motion to compel ministers to apply to rejoin the EU Customs Union if they fail to reach an agreement with the EU before Brexit. Labour has told its MPs to support the rebels. May’s government has decided to reject the amendment.

In the event, the government defeated the Remainers’ amendment on the customs union by 307 to 301 votes. Twelve Tory Remainers voted against the government, but four Labour dissidents and one independent voted with it. This is a striking victory for the Tory Brexiteers rather than for ministers, however, because it demonstrates that a policy of clean or hard Brexit has a better chance of becoming law than either the misbegotten Chequers compromise or a more  Remainer approach.

A weakened Theresa May now has to calculate again on the basis that Brexit has the votes — just.

NOW WATCH: ‘The Trumps To Have Tea With The Queen’

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