Jul 13, 2018

It was mid-afternoon on the Monday (9th July) and the assembled Eastern European Foreign Ministers had visited London to hear an address by Foreign Minister Boris. But where was he? Boris had a major distraction from his day job.

Elsewhere the clocks were striking three o’clock when Prime Minister May was advised by an official that Boris had resigned (“Brexit was dying, suffocated by needless self-doubt”, he proclaimed). Just thirty minutes later Mrs May entered a packed House of Commons to a rousing reception and took her seat on the front bench. Over the next two hours she delivered a statement on her government’s Brexit Plan and answered 95 questions from members, in a strong voice and with a steely-eyed determination. One recalls the erstwhile famous remark that “the lady’s not for turning”!

Labour Leader Corbyn responded to the statement quite confrontationally, saying the government was in disarray and had taken two years to come up with a plan which within just 48 hours was already disintegrating. But this cut little ice. The central contest was within and among the Conservative’s hard Brexiters. The unknown was when, if at all, some of them might strike against the Plan and the Prime Minister, and take how many others with them. The Government’s chief Brexit negotiator, David Davis, had resigned the previous night along with a junior colleague.

Davis’ problem was that over those two years, despite the title, he had not been the ‘principal’ negotiator in fact. That had been entrusted to a professional government adviser directly answerable to the PM. Davis had engaged with the EU chief negotiator for just 4 hours over that two year period. His real problem was that he no longer believed in the government’s policy, even before it was crystalised at Chequers. In his view the UK had already given away too much to the EU and what the EU had been offered they would take anyway and then demand more. The UK could never win the way it was going.

His place had been taken by a former Minister for Justice, Dominic Raab, who had lost that position some time earlier but was currently Housing Minister, and now seemed cut out for the job of Brexit negotiator, being a prominent Leave campaigner and a lawyer with 6 years’ experience at the Foreign Office (2000-2006) and knowledge of the Brussels bureaucracy.

Later that afternoon, the Conservatives’ rank and file met under the auspices of the 1922 Committee, the body entrusted with preserving the Conservative Party’s legacy, and which could on the passing of a motion by some 48 members, call for a spill of the party leadership. However on her arrival at the meeting Mrs May again received an enthusiastic reception and, like in the Commons earlier in the day, her Brexit critics remained subdued and simply picked at a few issues reflecting their view that the government was letting down its commitment to the 2016 Referendum and the Party’s election manifesto. They didn’t take matters further.

So what of Boris? Once David Davis had resigned Boris had no option but to go himself to preserve whatever credibility he had left with fellow Brexiters and more widely. This way, while tenuous, he could be said to be living for another day – a day which might see the collapse of or an outright EU rejection of the government’s negotiating Plan – with the UK eventually crashing out. As it is, the government has begun extensive preparations for just such an eventuality so as not to be caught out. Such timely preparations would also give it the option to toughen up on the negotiations well before the signs became irreversible.

But how likely is that? From now until October the government must hold its Plan together otherwise it will lose face irretrievably with the EU. The Plan is obviously the best it could put together given all the push-pull factors in the Party, and to maintain its Parliamentary majority (which depends on the 10 members of the Irish Unionist Party). The Plan meets most of the bottom line requirements and doesn’t seriously cross any immutable red lines. It stops free movement of labour and recovers sovereignty over the UK’s borders; there is no cash splash for the EU; there is free trade in goods and flexible rules (if not freedom) for services; there is the avoidance of a hard Irish border; an end of the (subsidised) Common Agricultural Policy; the recovery of full fishing rights over territorial waters; and no further subservience to the European Court of Justice. The administration of the Facilitated Customs Arrangement and the harmonisation of the Common Rule Book need not cause insurmountable problems when negotiating trade agreements with third countries. There will be more about this in the forthcoming White Paper. The government will argue on these points that as in any trade negotiations disparities of rules and standards involve give and take for all parties (see my “Brexit: All in the National Interest” July 9, 2018 and previously “Brexit: Time’s almost up”).

The contest between those wanting to revert to folklore times and sovereignty games on the one side and those concerned with modern realities such as jobs and industrial supply-lines on the other had to be won by the latter if Britain is to survive in the real world. However there is one over-riding issue for both sides and that is being seen to be true to the 2016 Referendum decision, a matter of democratic principle, right or wrong. At a time when democratic values are being tested around the world there can be no going back on the votes of some 17 million people. The issue is how to make the best of that without doing violence to “Brexit means Brexit”.

It serves little purpose for the Brexiters to beat the Prime Minister around the head and threaten revolution when the object of the exercise is to get the EU’s acceptance of the best deal possible. If that fails and a hard Brexit follows Britain will be on its own and its feelings towards Europe will be soured for decades. This would be much, much worse than remaining in the EU but unfortunately the die has been well and truly cast.

To get agreement from 27 trussed European countries all with their own picky issues Britain will need to exhibit a high level of pragmatism, more so than the Continentals who are thought to be too emotional to be rational. It comes down to the old aphorism that in politics, principle gives way to interests. This is the stand that Mrs May has adopted and she will go to the wire to see that through.

An interesting footnote is that in her Commons statement Mrs May reiterated the government’s wish to join the now modified Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) as soon as possible and looks to Australia for support on this.

So in the circumstances that have unfolded, even Jacob Rees-Mogg, who heads the euphemistically titled ‘European Research Group’, and the other tribals, would have trouble finding credible resigning issues over the government’s negotiating Plan at this stage. In any event they would be unlikely to command a critical majority to bring it down. Where things could go wrong for Mrs May are, as noted, if she were to face intransigence from the EU, or if Britain were to look ridiculous in the negotiations. Parliament as a whole may then react and bring about national elections with who knows what outcome. There will be times when the government will need to face down its critics and opponents within the Party, on the other side, and elsewhere. Meanwhile it needs to avoid simple political mistakes that could destabilize the process. That might be a big ask of any leader in such stressful times. But don’t forget that October is just around the corner (after the summer break!), and March 29, 2019 just under nine months away.

 Andrew Farran is a former diplomat, law academic and trade policy adviser, reporting from the UK.

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