It may seem odd to characterise an almost certainly acrimonious NATO summit and a tricky few days hosting an unpredictable and outspoken American president as a lull in politics. But Theresa May could be forgiven for taking that view given the drama of the past few days. The uneasy truce in her government over Brexit has finally come to an explosive end. Two of her most senior cabinet ministers have resigned as well as a clutch of more junior figures and her own position has become more fragile than ever. And that’s because they are not prepared to accept the decisions she has taken over Brexit. So what now? Should she remain in office to try to carry them out? Or is the ‘turmoil’, to use President Trump’s unhelpful language, going to prove terminal for her government?
The immediate cause of all this high political drama was the Prime Minister’s decision at last to come off the fence. For two years she has been trying to avoid choosing between the very different views about Britain’s future relations with the European Union after Brexit held by staunch Brexiteers and former Remain supporters in her government. Last Friday she summoned her Cabinet to Chequers, her official country home, took away her ministers’ mobile phones and cajoled them into accepting her plan, making it clear that anyone who wanted to resign would have to hitch their way back to London.
Until Sunday evening it looked as if her strategy was working. There had been no resignations and she was able to tell the world that her cabinet had unanimously agreed the set of proposals she intended to put to our EU partners in the forthcoming negotiations. But then it started to fall apart. David Davis, her Brexit secretary, announced that he was resigning. It would have been his job to advocate the plan, defend it against attack and go into battle in Brussels on its behalf, but he felt he couldn’t do it – for the simple reason that he did not agree with it. The Prime Minister, he said, would do better to find a new Brexit secretary who did.
The following day, Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary who on Friday had congratulated Mrs May on providing a ‘song’ all ministers could sing, announced that it was sticking in his throat and he too resigned. Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, remarked that it had taken the Prime Minister two years to cobble together a collective position on Brexit and then only two days for it to fall apart.
For David Davis, the problem lay in the detail of the plan. Mrs May has been struggling with how to square a circle. To honour the referendum result and to deliver on her own motto that ‘Brexit means Brexit’, she has been intent on ensuring that Britain leaves the structures of the EU at the end of March next year. But at the same time she has wanted to secure a future of ‘frictionless trade’ with the EU in the years afterwards. The problem was how to secure such frictionless trade when those very EU structures are what have maintained it.
Part of her solution was to propose a ‘common rule book’ of regulations governing trade: Britain would continue to abide by existing trade rules set by the EU and any new ones the EU created subsequent to our departure from the EU would also be accepted, though Parliament would retain the right to reject them. She conceded that if Parliament were actually to do so, there would be ‘consequences’ (and some possibly quite serious ones at that). But the circle was squared: frictionless trade would persist but Britain, outside the EU, would have the legal right to reject new rules it had had no voice in formulating.
To Mr Davis, however, this was too much to concede in an opening bid. In his letter of resignation, he wrote: ‘The general direction of policy will leave us in at best a weak negotiating position, and possibly an inescapable one’.
Mr Johnson’s objections were less technical but even more hard-hitting. He wrote: ‘The dream is dying, suffocated by needless self-doubt… We are now in the ludicrous position of asserting that we must accept huge amounts of EU law because it is essential for our economic health – and when we no longer have any ability to influence these laws as they are made. In that respect we are truly headed for the status of colony… It is as though we are sending our vanguard into battle with the white flags fluttering above them’.
Other, more junior government ministers have also resigned and Brexiteers on the Tory backbenches are outraged at the government’s new position, backed by the new ministers she has appointed, Jeremy Hunt (a former Remainer) as foreign secretary and Dominic Raab (a Leaver) as Brexit secretary. It is believed that there are enough disaffected Tory MPs to trigger a leadership challenge against Mrs May but at the moment they are staying their hand. The leading Tory Brexiteer, Jacob Rees-Mogg, says he does not want to oust the Prime Minister. Instead, he wants her to abandon the policy agreed at Chequers. It’s said that there could be almost daily resignations from her government until she does.
But, as the veteran Tory politician, Ken Clarke, once said: Mrs May is a ‘bloody difficult woman’ and there is no sign at all that she intends to change her mind. And she has the backing of one of the leaders of the Leave campaign, Michael Gove, the environment secretary.
The trouble for the Prime Minister is that getting off the fence over Britain’s future relationship with the EU is not the end of the story but just the beginning. After all, her plan is no more than the opening bid in the negotiation with the EU and there is next to no chance of the EU accepting it in its present form. In the first place that is not the nature of negotiation: it always involves give and take and Mr Davis’s objection is that Mrs May has already given too much. But even more importantly, the EU has shown itself wholly unwilling to make any compromises which it believes might undermine its own cohesion. Put in more straightforward terms, it is determined not to let Britain have its cake and eat it and there are many in Europe who will think that Mrs May’s proposals amount to just that.
So the outcome of the negotiations (if indeed there is one, as opposed to a total breakdown) seems almost certain to involve Mrs May in making further concessions. Any deal will have to be voted upon by the House of Commons and it is then that the disaffected Tory Brexiteers will strike. It’s thought about eighty of them would be willing to vote against the deal and, since the government does not have a majority, it would need to rely on opposition votes to get the deal through. Mr Rees-Mogg, cited the example of the Tory Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, who used opposition votes against his own party to repeal the Corn Laws in 1846, has warned that this would cause a huge crisis in the Tory Party and could risk keeping it out of power for decades. Labour, however, may think a simpler way of defeating the government would be just to vote against it.
The crunch looks likely to come in the autumn and it could lead to an impasse. Mrs May could find herself in the position where she cannot get any deal passed but is also prevented by the House of Commons from leaving the EU without a deal. In such circumstances the only option might be to seek a delay in Britain’s departure from the EU while ministers went back to the drawing board.
If that were to happen, our European partners might simply say: ‘we told you so’. Ever since Britain voted to leave, the EU has said there could be no ‘bespoke’ deal of the cake-eating sort Mrs May’s plan is widely thought to be. There are only two choices, they say. You can be ‘Norway’ – full access to trade with the EU but with no say on making the rules. Or you can be ‘Canada’: a free trade deal that can be hammered out between the two sides but which will not be frictionless and which will involve customs controls of the sort that may cause political difficulties on the Irish border.
The Norway option is the one more favoured by business because things would go on much as they are now, but it is widely thought to be politically unsustainable. Brexiteers would say it was a total sell-out and Remainers would say it just showed we should never have left the EU because we were now accepting its rules without having any input ourselves. In short it would be denounced by both sides as the worst of all worlds.
So that leaves ‘Canada’. Some commentators believe it is what Boris Johnson is waiting to champion. When every other option has collapsed he will present himself as the new Churchill who will sweep away the failed appeasers of the EU and lead Britain into its new destiny. As he put it in his resignation letter, ‘Brexit should be about opportunity and hope’.
This may be Mr Johnson’s dream but whether, for him, it will ever become reality is quite another matter. Even those Tory MPs who share his view of the direction Mrs May has decided to follow on Brexit may look at his record as foreign secretary and conclude they can find someone better to lead them to the Promised Land.
But all this is for the future. As of now, Mrs May has a lull. As she participates in the NATO meeting that President Trump has already predicted will be ‘difficult’, she can claim that at least Britain is spending the 2% of GDP on defence he is demanding from every member. And over lunch with him at Chequers she’ll have the opportunity to sort out their problems face to face, even if he’d prefer to be on the phone to his ‘friend’, Boris. Maybe she’ll confiscate his mobile.
What do you make of the high drama of recent days? Do you support the Prime Minister’s plan on Brexit or you think she has given too much away? What chance do you think there is that a deal will be struck with our EU partners? Were David Davis and Boris Johnson right to resign? What’s your assessment of Boris Johnson? And do you want Theresa May to stay as prime minister or should she go?
Let us know your views.