On December 11, after a year of secret negotiations and political prestidigitation (or conjuring), Theresa May’s attempt to craft a Brexit will be put to its final test. It must meet the formal legal criterion of leaving the European Union while ensuring that U.K.–EU trade remains almost entirely free of tariffs in practice (or, in the jargon, “frictionless”).
In keeping with the progress of May’s very own, very own Brexit so far, this final test is now said by the Downing Street smoke-and-mirrors machine to be only the first final step, because May’s EU deal now seems likely to end in a Commons defeat. That defeat, if it happens, will be mainly at the hands of rebels from her own party.
The May cabal hints that if the prime minister holds the rebels’ majority to fewer than 100 votes, she will try again in a month or two. That’s a sign of a weaker political position, of course, and a dangerous strategy into the bargain. If there seems to be no real penalty to voting no the first time, the numbers against her plan may well rise to a level that would make it impossible to seek a second vote. Indeed, that is probably now the case. Tories as loyal and as prudent as the former defense secretary, Sir Michael Fallon, say frankly that the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) agreed between May and the EU is “doomed.”
May herself has now embarked on a nationwide tour to “sell” the WA to the voters on the assumption that they will then press the MPs in her own divided party to rally round the government line. It’s a quixotic enterprise reliant mainly on the fact that the public seems to have some sympathy for May’s dogged persistence in pursuing her Chequers plan. But the obstacles to its success are more substantial than their admiration for her.
May’s actual plan is extremely unpopular with the voters who don’t think it achieves what they voted for as Brexit. The more they know about it, the less popular it becomes. In most polls, it is the least popular among several Brexit outcomes (including Remain). And its unpopularity is stronger among the Tory activists — who give it about 20 percent support — than among the voters generally. Yet it is the activists who would presumably be exerting pressure on her MPs.
How did things come to this sorry pass? One main reason is that May was “being pushed by senior ministers and officials into a conflict with more than half her party in the House of Commons,” as I flagged in the second of two NRO articles earlier this year.
It is a conflict that could destroy both sides. Infighting in the government is barely under control, and party discipline in the Commons is fraying at the edges. A meaningful reshuffle has to happen. For if May doesn’t reshuffle her ministry, the Tory party will reshuffle her.
There is some debate as to whether May maneuvered herself into this position or was maneuvered by others into it. She says the latter. The WA is the Brexit she always wanted. Also, it’s taken most of the year for the consequences of her Brexit strategy to play out. In fact, they haven’t fully played out yet. Given the strong coalition of Cabinet Remainers, establishment worthies, and media enterprises supporting a less-than-Brexit outcome, or even an outright Remain, we can’t rule out a come-from-behind victory for May, the EU, and their WA deal. But it seems unlikely for two reasons.
The first is that the WA is a terrible, terrible deal, as even many of its backers privately admit (notably an unfortunate manager at the Confederation of British Industry whose candid email went awry). For a full analysis of its awfulness, read the back-and-forth debate between the Cabinet Office and a distinguished lawyer, Martin Howe, Q.C., who demolishes the government’s case with a lawyerly pitilessness in the London Spectator.
It can be summed up, however, in these terms: The WA keeps the U.K. inside the Customs Union, retains almost all the regulations of the single market, and is subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice; it also removes Britain’s vote from all EU institutions and makes its withdrawal from this iron cage of EU institutions dependent on the EU’s consent. Everyone except May and her cabal admits that this is worse than simply remaining in the EU as a member state.
Almost the sole Brexit aim that May has achieved is the end of “free movement of labor,” or EU open borders. One plausible explanation of May’s priorities is that she is a Remainer who wanted to dilute Brexit all along but calculated that any solution would have to satisfy voter anxieties on immigration. Remainers have consistently explained away the Brexit vote as driven by racist opposition to free movement. But polls at the time of the vote showed that a desire to restore the U.K.’s status as a self-governing democracy was a far more powerful motive for Leavers. And public reactions to the WA plainly demonstrate the same concern: Brits don’t want to be governed by a European coalition even if they are influential members in it.
May’s endorsement of the WA shows an almost catatonic inability to grasp this point. Her willingness to subordinate U.K. sovereignty to the EU has gone to the extent of placing Britain, the single largest military power in Europe, in the EU’s defense structures (which Britain has traditionally opposed as harmful to NATO), even though the EU is saying plainly that London will have no say in their decisions. May embarked on this aspect of U.K.–EU relations with her advocacy a year ago of a “deep and special relationship” with Europe. But as I wrote at the time, this exaggerates the specialness of Britain’s ties with Europe:
They are not as important strategically as ties with the U.S., or as culturally important as ties with Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, or even as economically important as ties with non-EU countries, which now account for 56 percent of U.K. trade.
Given that most remarks about Britain from the EU during the negotiations have been hostile or dismissive, to keep insisting on the warmth of U.K.–EU relations sounds pleading and counterproductive. And it invites contempt — for which, oddly, May seems to have a prodigious appetite.
Elite Remainers, such as Tony Blair and the editors of the Financial Times and The Economist, are more candid. They accept these restraints on U.K. sovereignty because they have already made the psychological leap from allegiance to the United Kingdom to loyalty to an emerging European state. They are in fact EU nationalists, or as Yoram Hazony would plausibly argue, EU imperialists (since despite its name the EU is a polity with no natural boundaries and a universalist aspiration). They wrap up that transfer of loyalty in claims that there is no contradiction between a European and a British identity. But a conflict between such divided loyalties always arrives, and thus a time always comes when a choice has to be made between them, as in 1861. The current willingness of Remainers to help the EU weaken and wrong-foot the British side of the Brexit negotiations suggests they have made that choice but are still deceiving themselves about it.
Because Britain has been America’s most dependable ally since 1941, the U.S. has an interest in discouraging this absorption of Britain into a continental European polity in general, and in a European defense structure independent of NATO in particular. President Trump’s remarks regretting that the WA is likely to prevent a closer U.S.–U.K. trade relationship are correct in themselves; they’re also a warning to the Brits about the wider risks of entering European structures that could ultimately weaken and disrupt a unique defense and intelligence relationship vital to the U.K.’s security.
The second reason for doubting that the WA can survive is that it can be sold to voters and MPs only by the most outrageous lies — precisely because it’s a terrible agreement. An important article by Gerald Frost (full disclosure: an old friend and ally in many a political battle) in the current New Criterion establishes beyond any doubt that the European project in Britain has advanced since the 1960s by systematically deceiving the British people about its ultimate purpose, which is to build a European state of some kind with its own foreign and defense policy. (Its theorists bicker continually about exactly what kind.)
That said, the scale of falsehood and dissimulation in the current U.K. debate is of a higher (or lower) order entirely. May stated a year ago that she would not cross a series of red lines: A customs union was out, the single market was out, and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice was out. All those red lines have now been erased, or at the very least rubbed out in places, but May insists they are still clearly marked in neon on the map. There is something eerie and unsettling about someone stating facts in a public forum such as the House of Commons when the treaty she is advocating plainly contradict her description of it.
Admittedly, in the last few days, May has conceded that some compromises had to be made. She allowed that, under the terms of WA, Britain would be able to make free-trade agreements with the U.S. or other friendly countries only on the terms that would deter any interest on the part of those other partners. In other words, Britain could not seriously expect to enjoy one of the most attractive benefits of Brexit. And if the main reason that people voted for Brexit in the referendum was to “take back control” of political decisions from the EU, then a deal that subjects the Brits to rules and regulations with no say in making them — i.e., taxation without representation — and no right of exit without the permission of Brussels unmistakably violates the trust and wishes of the voters. It makes the unequal treaties that the British imposed on imperial China in the 19th century seem like the Marshall Plan.
Yet the message that May is taking around the U.K. for the next 14 days is that her Withdrawal Agreement is the realization of what Britain voted for in June 2016. It surely can’t persuade the voters — and certainly not to the extent of inspiring them to press their MPs to imprison the country inside its tight regulatory corsets. Most MPs and commentators are reaching this conclusion and starting to consider seriously what will replace the WA after its parliamentary defeat — and perhaps who will replace Theresa May. But the signs are that the lies and deception will continue to play a major role in determining the question of what comes next — and to that I will return tomorrow.