Brian Monteith: Poor strategy leaves May scrambling over genuine Brexit

UK heading for a worst-case scenario with government preparations in a shambles, writes Brian Monteith

Paul Masterton, the Conservative MP for East Renfrewshire. Picture: John Devlin
Paul Masterton, the Conservative MP for East Renfrewshire. Picture: John Devlin

How the EU negotiators must be laughing in Brussels, laughing so heartily I‘m surprised we can’t actually hear them. Michel Barnier and his team, together with the EU elite of Junker, Tusk and Verhofstadt – day after day, week after week, have humiliated Theresa May, David Davis and the rest of the cabinet.

The Prime Minister’s strategy of going out of her way to seek a trade deal, rather than starting from the position of how we could be economically successful without one (like many other prosperous trading nations) and focusing on transitional arrangements towards relying upon WTO rules, has left her at the mercy of the EU negotiators who have dictated her agenda and extracted compromises when none should have been necessary.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

We have billions of assets tied up in European institutions such as European Central Bank and the European Investment Bank that are not being repatriated, but instead we are contributing at least £40bn to future EU budgets when we have no obligation to do so. And for what?

The concession of allowing border arrangements with Ireland to be settled before we know what any UK-EU trade deal would be – and therefore what would be required – has been especially wrong-headed and given the Irish Republic a veto on what is proposed. Instead of demonstrating the UK’s willingness to ensure there is no risk to the unrelated Belfast Agreement Theresa May’s gestures of help and friendship have been twisted by nationalists to escalate tensions and advance their agenda of breaking the UK from Northern Ireland.

No hard border is required for the current differences in taxes, duties or numerous regulations and so long as Ireland remains outside the Schengen agreement none is needed for the free movement of people within our islands. Given that accommodations are already in place on transport and standards for agriculture there will only be a “hard border” if the EU imposes one.

Yet we had last week the circus of the absurd when Theresa May and David Davis had a face-off about whether or not a backstop position on border arrangements that ties the UK into the Customs Union required a time limit. No sooner had the principle of a time limit been agreed – but without a date – when Michel Barnier simply dismissed this classic British fudge and went on to demand a border down the Irish Sea – a solution that has already been ruled out in the preliminary agreement signed off in December.

The reality has now dawned that, as I argued in this column last year, the Stage One agreement was a sham. The backstop should never have been conceded in the first place and Theresa May should have taken the EU on at that point and walked away, demonstrating an ability to play hardball.

Instead, all that was achieved was to show her willingness to fold and postpone the hard decisions until later – something Theresa May is still doing even now. It is no surprise therefore that a YouGov poll found universal dissatisfaction amongst the public – from both leavers and remainers – towards the UK government’s conduct of the negotiations. Boris Johnson was not wrong when he suggested Donald Trump would have been making a better fist of it.

The Prime Minister may yet be put out of her self-inflicted misery. Her unravelling negotiating position – too weak abroad because it is so divided at home – will be put to the test tomorrow and on Wednesday of this week. Then we shall witness the legislative denouement as the Lords amendments to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill are considered – with the government’s need to reverse the 15 changes hanging in the balance. Failure to win could result in the government collapsing or a move to elect a new Conservative leader – which is effectively the same thing.

It may well be that the Lords amendments are removed, but with a possible 12 Tory rebels it may also be that new amendments, just as damaging, are suffered, making a mockery of the platforms the Conservative and Labour parties stood on during the general election a year ago.

For a Scottish example we have Paul Masterton, the Conservative member for East Renfrewshire, considering putting his own personal views before the manifesto his electors sent him to Westminster on. Any actions in rebelling against his Prime Minister put at risk not just her government but the future of Conservative members in Scottish coastal seats who owe much of their local support to their commitment of taking Britain out of the hated Common Fisheries Policy. The Tory members for Moray, Banff and Buchan, Gordon, West Aberdeenshire and Angus should all take Mr Masterton aside and leave him under no illusion that he, and he alone of Scottish Conservative MPs, is putting at risk the revival of the Conservatives as a credible unionist party.

For if Theresa May’s government cannot hold its nerve and deliver an orderly process to leave the EU’s economic institutions there is absolutely no prospect that it will have the wherewithal to extract us from the CFP – and if the Scottish Conservatives cannot deliver on their promise to take us out of the CFP then it will be marked up as the supreme betrayal by Ruth Davidson’s party and they will be as good as finished in the coastal seats, and probably elsewhere too.

As things stand we are now heading for the worst Brexit possible where the preparations made by government departments are in a shambles (with some intentionally dragging their feet), where little of benefit except concessions to the EU have been agreed, where we will take rules and accept administrative burdens without having a say in them and paying £40bn for the privilege. If that is not a bad deal I don’t know what is.

A victory for Theresa May could rejuvenate her premiership and give her the authority to negotiate from a stronger position.

Alternatively, if the Prime Minister cannot find the numbers to get her vision of Brexit passed in the Commons and show genuine leadership at last then she should tender her resignation and let someone else come forward who can.

It would need to be someone who believes in the positive opportunities that can come of Brexit and can command the House. Next week I may feel it necessary to discuss who that is.