The Brexit Crisis

British Prime Minister Theresa May outside 10 Downing Street in October. (Simon Dawson/Reuters)

After what seem like years of a phony war, British and European Union negotiators finally agreed on the terms of Britain’s departure from the EU earlier this week, and Theresa May announced it in the House of Commons. The deal covers more than 500 pages of legal and bureaucratic prose, and few but the negotiators have read it in full. But those who have say that it confirms the earlier leaks: After leaving, Britain will continue to be subject to EU rules and regulations more or less indefinitely but, as a non-EU-member state after March, the country will have no say or vote in designing them.

It doesn’t sound like a very attractive package, but May argues that this deal fully achieves the Brexit that the voters chose two years ago. It’s hard to square this claim with the “red lines” she vowed a year ago to never cross:

Red Line: Britain will leave the single market and its regulations.

Deal: Britain will sign on to a “common rulebook” of regulations that will in fact be the EU single-market rulebook.

Red Line: Britain will leave the Customs Union in order to sign free-trade deals with non-EU countries such as the U.S.

Deal: Britain will stay indefinitely in a customs union with the EU, which will make it impossible to negotiate free-trade deals with others, and Britain will only be able to leave it by agreement with the EU and with the consent of an international arbitration body.

Red Line: Britain will be out of the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.

Deal: Britain will be subject to ECJ jurisdiction on regulation and trade matters, and U.K. courts will take account of its rulings.

May nonetheless is sticking to the line — which she has firmly, indeed obstinately, defended in two parliamentary appearances this week — that she has achieved the Brexit deal she wanted all along. Battle lines are therefore now being drawn in U.K. politics for and against both May and the deal. Brexit’s strongest supporters in Parliament, such as Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, denounce the deal as outright betrayal. They therefore act on the logic that if the leader won’t change the deal, then they must change the leader. They call for Tory MPs to submit the 48 or more letters needed to force a vote of no confidence in May.

Covert Remainers on the Tory side welcome the deal as the best achievable Brexit, even perhaps as a roundabout route to a second referendum and Remain itself. They accept that the deal might be unsatisfactory but argue that this is because Brexit is an impossible “fantasy” — a convenient argument since it absolves May, Chancellor Philip Hammond, and the cabinet Remainers of any responsibility for what is a very messy outcome. After all, they were asked to do the impossible, weren’t they? Remainers and the government’s allies are now rallying round May (who says the deal is Brexit) precisely on the grounds that the deal isn’t Brexit and indeed that it will postpone Brexit indefinitely.

To add to the confusion, the Northern Irish Democratic Unionists, whose support gives the May government its parliamentary majority, say they will oppose the deal when it comes before Parliament because it places a border within the U.K. to avoid one between the U.K. and the Republic of Ireland. And that threatens the Union — not the European Union but the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

May and her loyalist supporters therefore face three linked challenges: a possible leadership vote, a possible parliamentary defeat on the EU–U.K. deal, and a possible election to resolve the Brexit solution. In short, Britain is in the midst of a full-bore political crisis. Several cabinet ministers, including May’s second secretary of state for Brexit, have resigned. A further five have let it be known that they are staying in the cabinet only to obtain changes in the deal. And at least half the required 48 letters for a vote of confidence have now been publicly submitted. To all these events, May’s response has been to circle the wagons and to appoint loyalists to replace those who resign. Her cabinet is now almost entirely Remainer in its sympathies. And she is stating clearly that she will not change an iota of the deal — indeed, that she cannot do so because the EU would accept no such changes.

Crises of this kind follow no known rules. Governments usually get their way, but when party loyalties are stretched to breaking point and constitutional conventions strain under pressure, governments sometimes lose and are sometimes broken altogether. At present, it looks as if May is likely to lose the parliamentary vote on the deal but likely to survive a leadership challenge. If she loses the leadership, she’s out altogether — there’s no coming back from that. If she holds on as leader but loses the vote on the deal because of Tory dissent, she’s almost certainly out then also. A leader who spends two full years not getting Brexit done will find her support evaporating. Her allies let it be known that in the event of such a parliamentary defeat, she would call an election on a manifesto that included her deal with Europe.

That is surely a fantasy. It would run up against at least two formidable obstacles. The first is that the Conservative party below the cabinet level is a Leaver party — as opinion polls and election statistics both show clearly. She would be leading a bitterly divided party into an election on an issue on which her natural voters are against her. That would be the culmination of her original error on Brexit — which has been to allow herself to be maneuvered by a faction of Remainer ministers, civil servants, and establishment worthies into a Brexit strategy at odds with the great majority of her own party. It would almost certainly lead to electoral. The second obstacle is her claim that the EU–U.K. deal she has embraced achieves the Brexit referendum result. It’s a completely absurd claim, as everyone can see, and she would lack the rhetorical ability to put across a much better case. As in the last election, she would be reduced to helpless silence.

There is no good end to this crisis under May’s leadership or on the basis of this dangerous and undemocratic deal. The Tories should find the courage and commonsense to choose a new leader who would then have the authority to forge a new policy to achieve a real Brexit. At present they are sleepwalking into vassalage.


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