George Bernard Shaw once began a BBC radio talk in the 1930s with the ominous words: “People often ask me: Is Britain heading straight for disaster?” Then he gave his cheerful reply: “That is a question I can easily answer: Britain is not heading straight for anything.”
Applying that analysis to the current state of British politics over Brexit, one might say that Britain has been zig-zagging to disaster for almost the whole of this year. After innumerable negotiations, false dawns, Cabinet rows and ministerial resignations, Shaw and I ask, has the country finally arrived at its destination?
In early November there was one sign that suggested the end-game was near. A Downing Street “communications grid” on how the government would sell the long-awaited EU-UK agreement in order to help it over the substantial humps of parliamentary opposition and popular scepticism was leaked to the BBC.
Inevitably, it made hilarious reading. There would be a Cabinet agreement on the deal, then a triumphant announcement by the Brexit Secretary, Dominic Raab, and finally a parliamentary vote on November 27—doubtless all successful. “The narrative is going to be measured success, that this is good for everyone, but won’t be all champagne corks popping.” And later: “Government lining up 25 top business voices including [the CBI director general] Carolyn Fairbairn and lots of world leaders eg Japanese PM to tweet support for the deal.” The days leading up to the parliamentary vote would be filled with a UK-wide sales pitch, in which Theresa May would visit “the north and/or Scotland”.
No battle plan ever survives an actual battle. Dominic Raab’s triumph is already behind schedule, and if he resigns over the deal as rumours predict, it won’t occur at all. Neither Northerners nor Scots will be exactly flattered to read that May will visit “the north and/or Scotland”. And anyone who has watched May give an interview to a journalist as competent and politely pressing as David Dimbleby or Andrew Marr knows that she could give a tailor’s dummy a head-start in inarticulate rigidity.
But the larger problem was that the entire exercise—notably the endorsements of eminent persons such as the director-general of the Confederation of British Industry and the Japanese Prime Minister—was a re-run of the original Remain campaign in worse circumstances. Then and now the campaign seems to be designed to overawe the voters with the superior wisdom of important people.
Since Brexit, however, there has been a surge of “populism” and hostility towards political elites almost everywhere. In the UK it is given greater legitimacy by the fact that it’s defending the largest democratic vote in British history. Even some devout Remainers feel a twinge of guilt about effectively overriding the referendum. And the hostile, sneering and patronising remarks about the Brits from European leaders throughout the period of negotiations have aroused real public anger in the UK. It’s hard to identify the public figures who could persuade voters to trust them on a matter as serious as a deal with the EU to carry out the promise of Brexit. That’s a big deal. Pop stars won’t quite cut the mustard. Carolyn Fairbairn would have to struggle first to tell people who she is.
For the major problem is the deal itself. Though I’m writing before it’s been published—it’s currently being shown to Cabinet ministers only, one at a time—the leaks and briefings have been so complete that its essential features are well known and widely debated. And by the most indulgent standards, it’s a lousy deal.
Most people on either side of the debate don’t think it amounts to Brexit in any but a narrow legalistic sense. Leavers oppose it outright. And Remainers (who will probably end up voting for it) concede its unsatisfactory character but argue that this shows Brexit itself to be an impossible “fantasy”. That’s a convenient argument since it absolves May, Chancellor Philip Hammond, and those who conducted the negotiations, of any responsibility for the outcome. After all, it was impossible, wasn’t it?
In other words, May tried but she just couldn’t do it. And, indeed, she certainly hasn’t done it.
Compare and contrast her own red lines with what she seems likely to announce:
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 rulebook that we will have no part in designing.
Red Line: Britain will leave the customs union in order to sign free-trade deals with the rest of the world.
Deal: Britain will stay in a customs union with the EU that will make it impossible to negotiate free-trade deals with the rest of the world indefinitely and will be able to leave only by agreement with the EU (or if the British negotiators win this round) by 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 UK courts will take account of its rulings.
Many of the details are actually worse than this crude summary suggests. But the whole can be summed up as follows: Britain will continue to be subject to the EU on trade rules and single-market regulations, but because it will legally cease to be an EU member-state next March it will have no say in designing them. It makes the “unequal treaties” that Britain imposed on China in the nineteenth century look like the Marshall Plan.
It needs no argument to prove that this is unacceptable to Leave supporters, because they immediately confirmed it by denouncing the deal as one that would make Britain a “vassal state” of the EU. A late-breaking development, however, was that Remain supporters started denouncing it too. Several Remain ministers apparently joined their Leave colleagues in threatening to resign. One Remainer actually did resign: Transport Minister Jo Johnson declared in his resignation statement that he agreed with his brother, leading Leaver Boris Johnson, that the May deal was the worst of all possible worlds.
And, finally, the Democratic Unionists, whose support gives the May government its parliamentary majority, said they would oppose the deal when it came before parliament on the grounds its provisions would risk creating a border in the Irish Sea (that is, between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK) which is anathema to them. And that threatens the entire “confidence and supply” deal between the government and the DUP on a whole range of issues other than Brexit.
Can May get this deal the parliamentary approval that her PR advisers cautiously assumed? The Tory chief whip predicts that she can—though he has to say that if the Prime Minister is determined to chance her luck. But she faces a series of hurdles.
The first is a Cabinet revolt. My guess is that there won’t be one large enough (that is, larger than five resignations) either to bring her down or to abandon the policy. Most potential rebels are relying on the Commons itself to do their rebelling for them. That way, they remain ministers for the time being.
The second is a defeat on the deal in the Commons. The parliamentary mathematics of such a defeat are certainly present. Brexiteers such as Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg will lead a rebellion of between twenty and sixty Tory MPs. All the Democratic Unionists will vote alongside them. That combination would usually hand the government a major reverse and the abandonment of May’s deal—except for the likelihood that some Remain Labour MPs will certainly come to May’s support because they want to halt Brexit at all costs. If May survives that vote, then the EU-UK deal will survive too—unless later pole-axed by some unforeseeable eventuality such as an early election before the legislation goes through.
Suppose that she loses the vote, however. Her cabal has let it be known that she would then call an election and ask the voters to support her version of Brexit. It’s far from certain, though, that she would be granted a dissolution in such circumstances. Britain now has a five-year fixed-term parliament, which limits a prime minister’s authority. Even under the previous system a prime minister’s defeat at the hands of her own party would be the classic case when a sovereign says no and asks another parliamentarian to explore the prospects of forming a government.
And May might be in a worse situation if she gets the election she asks for—since the Tory party in the country is strongly in favour of the most straightforward kind of Brexit and thus bitterly hostile to what she is trying to force on them. Tory MPs would refuse to campaign on her manifesto; Tory associations would try to de-select those MPs who backed her; and in seats where the MP supported her, there would be an independent conservative candidate standing against him who would split the Tory vote and in some cases deliver the seat to Labour or the Lib-Dems.
Supposing, finally, that she survives all this, gets her deal into law, and settles down to remain PM for the rest of this parliament (as her cabal insists she will). At that point her troubles really begin, because every EU regulation or ECJ ruling that disadvantages someone or something in Britain then becomes a massive example of the betrayal of Brexit to be laid at her door in Downing Street.
And the moral (for the moment) is:
O what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practise to deceive!