Yesterday, Theresa May emerged from 10 Downing Street after a five-hour “impassioned” cabinet meeting to announce that the “collective decision” to approve a draft of a Brexit withdrawal agreement with the EU had been reached. May used to say in regard to Brexit that “no deal would be better than a bad deal.” Her current proposal is not a bad deal. It is a very bad deal. Nevertheless, May said that the draft is “the best that could be negotiated” and — abandoning her old logic — warned that the only alternatives are “no deal” or “no Brexit.”
To say that this draft is far from the Brexit the British people voted for two years ago is putting it mildly. Gone are the hopes of leaving the customs union and the single market, taking back control of jurisdiction and borders. Gone are any aspirations for a Canada-style trade relationship. Already, two cabinet ministers have resigned in response to the deal, including the Brexit secretary, Dominic Raab. Raab explained why he couldn’t support the proposal in his resignation speech:
The terms of the backstop amount to a hybrid of the EU customs union and single market obligations. No democratic nation has ever signed up to be bound by such an extensive regime, imposed externally without any democratic control over the laws to be applied, nor the ability to decide the exit arrangement. That arrangement is now also taken as the starting point for negotiating the future economic partnership. If we accept that, it will severely prejudice the second phase of negotiations against the UK.
Unofficial reports say that as many as eleven cabinet ministers dissented during the meeting. And more resignations may well follow. May now faces the enormous challenge of getting the deal through the House of Commons. But there is attack from all sides.
First, from the Brexiteers. Jacob Rees-Mogg, chairman of the European Research Group (ERG) and persistent Brexiteer, wrote a letter to his fellow MPs outlining that the draft “will see the UK hand over 39 billion to the EU for little or nothing in return,” “would treat Northern Ireland differently than the rest of the UK,” “lock us into an EU customs union and EU laws,” and contravene the 2017 Conservative Manifesto. Rees-Mogg has called for a no-confidence vote in May’s leadership, which can be triggered if 48 MPs write letters calling for one. Rees-Mogg told journalists that even if May were to win such a vote, it would still show that “we will not vote for this deal, and the government cannot pass this deal.”
The second attack is from the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist party (DUP), on which the Tories rely for their parliamentary majority. In an attempt to solve the problem of the hard border, the new deal proposes a UK-wide backstop, a temporary customs arrangement with the EU to prevent a hard border. However, reading more closely, one sees that Northern Ireland will have a “deeper” relationship with the EU, which has serious implications for the integrity of the union — and would be political suicide for the Democratic Unionist party. Nigel Dodds, the DUP Westminster leader, added: “If that means taking the rules and laws set in Brussels, not in Westminster or Belfast, that’s unacceptable.”
The third group of dissenters are the Scottish Tories, who in addition to concerns for the integrity of the union also have major concerns about the regulation of the fishing industry. The 13 Scottish Tory MPs have made it clear they will not vote for May’s deal unless automatic fishing rights are granted.
Fourth are a number of Labour MPs who believe that the only way to solve the current mess is to have another Brexit referendum. This is also the logic of Jo Johnson, the former Tory transport minister, and brother of Boris Johnson, who resigned last week explaining that “no Brexit” would be better that this arrangement.
But what else can Theresa May do at this point? is a reasonable question. However, the fact that the alternatives — such as “no deal” — are so unappetizing is her own fault. May has spent the last two years slow-walking the negotiations, caving to every conceivable distraction and compromise.
She began the negotiations with the EU from a position of weakness: trying to please everyone except those arguing for a clean Brexit. Moreover, May has failed outright to prepare for the event of “no deal” (which is not the same as “no future relationship” with the EU). As the British economist Gerard Lyons and Sunday Telegraph columnist Liam Halligan explained in their 2017 book, Clean Brexit:
Ministers have allowed a narrative to be shaped which suggests that trading under WTO rule would be “disastrous.” This is nonsense.
The UK trades under WTO rules with the US — our biggest single-country trading partner. Most global trade takes place outside formal FTAs, under WTO rules. Yet, having allowed this very viable option to be painted as “cataclysmic” by Brexit opponents, the government should not be surprised that a substantial number of MPs, and many Remain voters, are now alarmed by the prospect of leaving with “no deal”, even in the event of a stalemate with the EU.
If May had articulated a strong vision and planned for the event of no deal, the country would not be in this position. The truth is that, at this point, Britain is truly unprepared for “no deal.” It would be an economic cliff’s edge. And it is the EU’s knowledge of this that explains how they’ve managed to bully May into accepting such a humiliating compromise.
Ever since the results of the referendum in June 2016, there has been a political campaign under way to derail Brexit. The 17.4 million who voted to leave the European Union rightly see this as a betrayal. The weak leadership of Theresa May has enabled this, and it is genuinely hard to see a way out. May’s latest attempt is a deal that no one wanted, and no one voted for. It is infinitely worse than staying in the EU.