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Salvaging Brexit

A man adjusts his tie at a Pro-Brexit event to celebrate the invoking of Article 50 after Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May triggered the process by which the United Kingdom will leave the European Union, in London, Britain March 29, 2017. (Peter Nicholls/Reuters)

Britain’s long-running crisis-cum-soap-opera over Brexit may be reaching its denouement today at Chequers, the prime minister’s country house, where the full cabinet is locked in a final debate on whether or not to accept Theresa May’s proposed terms for leaving the European Union. And “locked in” is the appropriate phrase. Ministers have had to surrender their cell phones on arrival; they have been told to expect the meeting to continue until 10.00 p.m.; and a Downing Street flack briefed the media that any minister who resigns will lose his official car straight away and have to walk three-quarters of a mile down the drive to pick up a taxi home.

That last threat seems an empty one to me, if not an actual incentive to any potential rebel to resign early. Imagine how powerfully Boris Johnson or David Davis, the two most likely departures, would exploit the chance of addressing the world’s cameras at the gates of Chequers and telling them how they simply couldn’t countenance the betrayal of British democracy that May’s Remainer Brexit represented. They would dominate the headlines and set the narrative for a full news cycle, while just five minutes away their former Cabinet colleagues would still be haggling over its details. You can’t buy that kind of publicity.

Most commentators believe that even so, the meeting will end with general agreement, however reluctant, and without resignations. It may be so. It should be so. For it’s hard not to see May’s proposals, as relayed through off-the-record briefings, as anything other than a betrayal. Earlier this week she made a resounding declaration at prime minister’s questions as follows:

May’s promised Brexit included “out of the customs union, out of the single market, out of the jurisdiction of the ECJ . . . [regaining] an independent trade policy, controlling freedom of movement etc., etc.” That parliamentary response echoed any number of such declarations since May became prime minister. But how does that repeated set of promises stack up against the proposals now being discussed at Chequers?

Here’s an abbreviated check-list:

  1. Out of the customs union? Well, apparently we would leave THE customs union but then enter A customs union under a complicated bureaucratic formula that would have the U.K. collecting tariffs on a wide range of goods still subject to EU tariffs, including agricultural goods, and remitting them to Brussels. Would other EU countries collect U.K. tariffs on goods not subject to EU tariffs and remit them to London? That doesn’t seem to be agreed — since it would impose a cost on those countries with no compensating gain. And it seems that tariffs (and therefore high prices) would continue to be levied on food and clothing that are a large part of poorer people’s budgets — thus negating one vital social gain from Brexit.
  2. Out of the single market? May proposals concede that the U.K. should leave the single market for services but seek to remain within it for goods. But that means accepting the U.K. remains subject to the regulatory harmonization of Brussels, which, again, removes one of the main advantages of Brexit — namely, regaining the power to make our own laws and shaping our economic regulations to suit U.K. interests rather than those of the 27 other EU member-states.
  3. Out of the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice? Not if we remain within a single market for goods which is the final arbiter in disputes over regulation. That is apparently advanced in May’s paper (written by civil servants skilled in bafflegab) as having any disputes between the U.K. and the EU settled by U.K. courts acting on precedents and rulings from the ECJ. That’s what more or less happens now — not only in law but also in administration.

If this bare bones explication of May’s paper looks thin, it shimmers into nothingness when set against specific questions of importance. Two are especially important: First, will any deal allow the U.K. to set its own migration rules? European officials say No since the EU’s four freedoms — including free trade and free movement of labor — stand or fall together. May’s response is therefore to suggest that Britain offers preferential migration rules for Europeans in return for free trade. That’s a concession to the EU that reverses what may be the most politically important of her Brexit promises.

Second, will Britain be able to conduct an independent trade policy and reach free-trade deals with other countries, in particular with Australia, Canada, and the U.S.? Downing Street has been saying both Yes and No to this question. The truth seems to be that it will be able to agree on trade deals that are restricted by the rules of a customs union with the EU. Or, to put that in simple English, No — the U.K. won’t be able to reach FTAs with other countries unless they adhere to EU regulations. Deputy prime minister (and Foreign Office trusty) David Lidington deflected that question this morning by claiming Britain will be an independent member of the World Trade Organization with its own vote. Wow. But since Britain will be a member of the EU customs union, its interests on trade questions will inevitably be distorted in the EU’s direction.

By any normal standards, May’s Brexit proposals today are a betrayal of her promises and the Brexit referendum. When I examined the prospects for the EU–U.K. negotiations earlier in the year politically and economically, here and here, I was mildly pessimistic about the possible mis-steps May was tempted to make and issued particular warnings, but I did not believe that there would be anything like this collapse. (If you’re enough of an anorak, you can check it out.) So what went wrong?

  1. May and her negotiating team must accept that they have made a complete hash of the negotiations. That team consists essentially of May, Olly Robbins, her civil-servant adviser whom she brought into Downing Street from Dexeu (the Department for Exiting the EU), Sir Jeremy Heywood, the omnipotent Pooh-Bah of today’s Whitehall, and Gavin Barwell, her chief of staff and a Tory MP who lost his seat in last year’s election. It doesn’t include the Secretary of State for Dexeu, David Davis, however, who has apparently been handling the parliamentary side of Brexit while Robbins shuttles between Brussels and Downing Street surrendering concession after concession. Last month ConHome’s shrewd observer of internal Tory politics, Paul Goodman recommended, here, that May should replace the civil servant Olly Robbins with the politician and minister David Davis. That would make the negotiating team more sensitive to what most Tory MPs want, as Goodman points out, and strengthen the Leave element in negotiations. It would also restore constitutional propriety — civil servants are not supposed to be policy-makers. But it now makes sense only if the Cabinet rejects and/or substantially modifies the May draft in its discussions today. Giving Davis real control of the remaining EU negotiations would be a powerful confirmation of such a change of course. On the other hand, if Davis resigns today or if the Cabinet accepts the present draft more or less entire, then she might as well let Robbins carry on with adding any final concessions Brussels wants.
  2. May should also allow the reconsideration of past mistakes. That badly needs doing. Among the strategic errors she and her team has made so far are: (a) agreeing to pay about $55 million to the EU as an exit charge before the EU would even open talks on trade; (b) offering an “unconditional” guarantee that the U.K. would be committed to European defense when the U.K.’s contribution to continental security was the strongest card in May’s hand; (c) rashly promising that London would avoid a hard customs border in Ireland as an absolute priority when no one had any idea of how to do so while also leaving the customs union; and (d) failing to make preparations for a No-Deal Brexit that would allow the government to “walk away” from talks and declare it would trade on WTO terms after March next year. It’s late in the day to reverse these concessions, but the fourth concession should now be explicitly denied — and preparations to enable the U.K. to cope with and benefit from a No-Deal Brexit should now be instituted on an emergency basis. Without that, Britain has little or no defense in the remaining EU–U.K. talks.
  3. A final explanation is that all of these concessions — which were imprudent and signaled weakness on the British side — had a theory behind them. This thinking (if it can be called that) was that they would indicate goodwill towards the EU and be reciprocated if not by the EU Commission and its negotiator Michel Barnier, then by the responsible heads of EU governments who would not risk damaging themselves simply in order to damage the U.K. Thus far these calculations have been disappointed. Indeed, the EU side has gone out of its way to respond to concessions by still more punitive rules and threats. And the main players among EU governments, Merkel and Macron, show no signs of wanting to soften the Commission’s sadism on the terms of Brexit.

All in all, things look bleak. May’s past failures and present surrenders to Europe certainly rise to the level of a resigning matter. Those ministers and Tory MPs who are seriously distressed by, as well as opposed to, the kind of Brexit that seems likely to emerge tonight, have one final argument for not resigning to fight May and her government’s plain intentions to adopting a messy Brexit that leaves the country “a vassal state,” in Jacob Rees-Mogg’s phrase. It is that the EU will reject what May is proposing. Why then resign and lose all influence if it’s likely that the odiferous package will be thrown back at Britain? It’s not an unreasonable argument, nor one without evidence to support it. EU spokesmen say loudly and repeatedly that the proposals will be “dead on arrival.” They probably will be. But suppose they are accepted? Or almost accepted — if Mrs. May will only make one small additional concession to the EU’s body of laws and regulations. It is not hard to imagine, given the current levels of spin and opinion management, that her final surrender would be reported as a triumph and Mrs. May would return to the Commons as a conquering heroine who has achieved Brexit without tears. Something like that happened just before last Christmas — yet now that triumph looks merely like a prelude to a coming disaster.

And it’s a disaster that could be nailed down quite quickly. The Queen has signed the bill to enable Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, making it law, and making the transition of European rules and regulations into U.K. domestic law relatively simple and straightforward. Do Boris, David, Michael, Liam and the rest want to find themselves cheering May’s triumph in a way that will make it impossible for them to stand up later and say, “We’ve changed our minds. It was a bad set of proposals, a surrender in stages, a gradual catastrophe.”

That’s why Cabinet rebellions are rare, and even when they occur, they resemble depth charges launched against submarines: The explosion happens quite a long time after the launch. In some cases — the famous one is the fall of Peel over the repeal of the Corn Laws — the government falls over an unrelated matter because an earlier betrayal has shattered its support within its own party. Those who went along with the betrayal can’t re-write the past but they can exact revenge. And they do.

It’s hard to imagine the Tory party surviving as a united patriotic national party if it sells the country into a vassalhood to the EU in which it not only loses its own national sovereignty but doesn’t even retain the modest 1/28th share of EU sovereignty it enjoyed as a member-state. It’s especially hard to imagine this at a time when patriotic and democratic nationalism is the principal rising trend in Europe-wide politics from Sicily to Denmark.

If you don’t rebel and obtain a change of direction today, there’s only one course left: Vote for a Tory leadership election and fight to replace May with a better leader. Picking a name from a hat would surely do that.

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