In the land of Brexit some has been lost while much has been gained in this, the summer of concession.
Thus far, UK Prime Minister Theresa May has passed the EU Withdrawal Bill, held a firm but fair meeting at Chequers where she stopped prevaricating and demanded a ‘For’ or ‘Against’ decision from her Cabinet on her Chequers Brexit plan — which resulted in the day-after resignations of two of her most powerful ministers and four others — and she has since met European officials where she received cool support for her super-diplomatic, uber-polite and overly soft Brexit proposal.
How Very British!
In some ways those recently resigned MP’s (who will now sit as Conservative backbenchers) might as well be sitting on the opposition side because they possess deep knowledge of May’s inner circle and have the inside scoop on how Brexit is to proceed.
Yet, it was a polite affair with Boris Johnson making a gentle resignation speech in the House of Commons while still urging the Prime Minister to pursue the kind of Brexit UK citizens want. Boris Johnson never looked so principled or gentlemanly in his life (struggling to sound almost deferential to May) and good on him for doing so. Of course emotions were high, and no doubt, he was extremely disappointed that (in his mind) the Chequers Brexit plan surrendered some amount of UK sovereignty to the EU politburo. Five stars for Boris.
David Davis, who is more of a moderate Brexiteer than Boris, tried hard to contain his deep disappointment and published a polite and informative resignation letter outlining his position. As Brexit Secretary (but Brexit-lite when compared to Boris Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg, for example) it appears he thought he could convince May to move to a slightly more robust Brexit plan only to have his hopes dashed. If she was going to be swayed by anyone it would’ve been him. We understand his disappointment too, but that’s politics. Well done, David Davis!
The problem with forcing Cabinet members to declare support or non-support of her Chequers Brexit plan is that she has lost some of them who now sit as backbenchers and are free to hold the government to account.
Theresa May imagines herself to be an experienced operator but if they choose to make her look bad, they could. Therefore, she should not be looking for a fight with them nor should the Prime Minister default to her previous ‘slapping-down’ behaviors or she will get tossed around in a 30-month-long-storm completely of her own making. (Approx. 9 months to go until the official Brexit date of March 29, 2019 plus the 21-month implementation period, equals 30 months of potential hell for Theresa May if she handles her former Cabinet ministers harshly)
Even with all of that said, it’s better to head into the final Brexit stage with a unified team who are fully committed to her overly soft Brexit plan instead of a team that’s pursuing several different Brexit versions at once.
Now that May has asserted herself she seems to be gathering respect from all sides, resignations notwithstanding. Since Chequers, she’s twice the Prime Minister than when she first took the job. Theresa May marque une victoire!
Notes on Theresa May’s Chequers Brexit Plan
- The Prime Minister’s plan suggests a ‘common rule book’ with the EU so that trade in goods and agricultural products won’t be impeded by conflicting sets of rules. ‘Red tape is the eternal productivity killer and the less of it the better’ said every business person ever. Of course, adopting EU standards could make it more difficult to export UK goods to non-EU countries with their different standards, or so the argument goes. Yet, every other country seems to master this, so why not Britain?
- The Chequers plan suggests a common rule book on state aid for industry, and harmonized environmental and climate-change standards, social policy parity, and protection for employees and consumers.
- Formerly one of the PM’s “red lines” was the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) which will end after Brexit although UK courts would consider ECJ rulings and/or even consult with the ECJ in certain cases. Which seems a wise idea for any country to consider.
- An FCA (a Facilitated Customs Agreement) where the UK and the EU would operate as a combined customs area — which some might call a customs union of sorts — where the UK would collect tariffs on goods shipped from outside the two countries destined for Europe, and presumably the EU would do the same for Britain.
- A mobility framework agreement to formally end the free movement of people between the continent and the UK. Unregulated immigration from the EU caused the number of EU nationals in the UK to rise to 3.8 million in only a few years, which was a significant contributor to the Leave victory. The mobility framework would allow freedom of movement for persons — such as students that are actually enrolled in college, for retired persons that can afford to live in the UK, for workers who have a guaranteed job waiting for them in the UK and streamlined entry for tourists from any non-terrorist country. One would hope the EU would reciprocate on all of this.
The problem with the common rule book approach is that MP’s of any party may see it as a ‘BRINO’ (Brexit In Name Only) and consequently lower their level of support for Brexit — at least Theresa May’s version of Brexit. And if BRINO fears take root, Conservative MP’s could decide to vote for a different leader should a leadership contest arise.
Parliamentarians have very long memories… so the caution flag is out for Theresa until the UK crosses the Brexit finish line.
Although progress on Brexit seems agonizingly slow Theresa May is an accomplished bureaucrat who realizes she can move forward only as fast as the other participants in the race, and if she moves too fast her government may lose support in Parliament, in the public space, and in Brussels (where she has precious little support to begin with and doesn’t want to suddenly find she has even less) and if she moves too slow, even worse may happen to Britain and to her political career.
Therefore, the race she’s really in is an OJ Simpson-style slow vehicle police chase to the official Brexit date with every camera rolling and catching every step and misstep.
Not very exciting to be sure, but if she gets a reasonable Brexit all should be forgiven.
At worst, the next British Prime Minister will have a firm foundation upon which to Build a Better Britain. Let us hope!
- View or download (PDF) the Chequers cabinet meeting Statement from HM Government here.
- Iain Mansfield: May’s new plan isn’t perfect, but it’s practicable. However, it can only work if treated as her bottom line. (ConservativeHome.com)