Yesterday’s meltdown has been a long time coming. Its next step could be a no-deal Brexit, writes Paris Gourtsoyannis
The silence should have tipped us off.
David Davis has never been one to hold back his opinion, and as his displeasure grew, he wasn’t afraid to send someone else to make it known.
According to an unofficial tally, ‘friends’ of Davis briefed on five separate occasions that the Brexit Secretary was considering his position, most recently at the start of June when the Prime Minister was reluctant to set a date for the publication of the much-anticipated white paper.
But after the Chequers Cabinet summit, there was nothing for more than 48 hours – and then he was gone.
His departure and that of the Foreign Secretary both signal that after two years, Brexit has finally collided with reality. It’s a moment that’s been a long time in the making.
How differently things have unfolded compared with the triumphal vision Davis set out in the days after the EU referendum. He claimed that the Prime Minister could bypass Brussels entirely, fly to Berlin and strike a trade deal with Angela Merkel – a worrying lack of understanding of the EU from someone whose job it was to try and negotiate with it.
In the end, it was the Brexit Secretary who was bypassed, with Mrs May appointing the civil servant Olly Robbins – who Davis had already fallen out with when he headed up the Department for Exiting the EU – as her chief Europe adviser at Downing Street. Robbins took on most of the actual negotiating; his impact was immediate, resulting in the publication of the controversial Northern Irish ‘backstop’ proposal that finally unblocked the talks and allowed them to move on to the second phase in December.
Davis, in contrast, is believed to have met Michel Barnier for a total of four hours this year. He was largely ignored by Brussels, and an EU source was quoted recently calling him the “tea boy”. That, as much as anything, must have contributed to his exit.
The Chequers plan that Davis and Boris Johnson object to so deeply was itself a product of that collision with reality. It reflected the stark warnings from firms like Airbus, BMW and Siemens in the week before the Cabinet away day, as well as the fact that to keep trade flowing over the Irish border and the UK’s other frontiers, the Government had to be willing to follow EU regulations and give up the chance of free trade deals with the likes of the US.
May’s compromise certainly didn’t face up to all the facts: it cut four-fifths of the UK’s economy in the services sector adrift from the European single market, and was set for rejection by the EU anyway because of the way it picks and chooses bits of access to that market. Remarkably, despite being unveiled on Friday evening, by Monday morning Brussels had already missed its chance to give its response before the agreement fell apart.
In the spirit of newfound realism, it’s difficult to see how the Prime Minister’s Brexit strategy survives the day. Before Davis’ departure, she was already facing a difficult job convincing Conservative MPs to back a common rulebook on goods and give up the prize of a US trade deal.
The most important intervention of the weekend probably wasn’t from the Brexit secretary, but from the chairman of the European Research Group of Brexiteer Tories, Jacob Rees-Mogg, who said he couldn’t vote for a Brexit deal based on May’s plan.
If Rees-Mogg carries even half of the ERG membership of around 70 with him, the Government’s position will surely become untenable whenever the final deal is put to a vote. There might be a majority in the Commons for a soft Brexit, but if it relies on scores of MPs from opposition parties more interested in reversing the result of the referendum (Lib Dems), collapsing the Government (Labour), or bringing about the end of the Union (SNP), then it isn’t much good to the Prime Minister. The hubris of her snap election decision last year, which contributed so much to the position the Government finds itself in, is back to claim its price.
Much of the commentary that says a cliff-edge Brexit is impossible seems to rest on the idea that no one wants one, but that’s the road the UK is on; it’s just a question of whether it takes an exit before reaching the drop. Once Article 50 was triggered, the only certainty was that the UK was leaving the EU on March 29, 2019 – with a deal or without one. As time has slipped by, the road to getting deal has crumbled away like weather-beaten asphalt, while the dirt track to no-deal has widened into a dual carriageway.
As for May herself, in an interview on the Today programme, Davis called her a “good Prime Minister” and encouraged colleagues not to depose her, but the reality is she could be gotten rid of almost as easily as her Brexit strategy. Tory MPs have to submit 48 letters of no confidence to trigger a leadership vote. Brexiteers alone might not be able to do it – but if Remainers also decide that she can no longer deliver a smooth exit from the EU, and that the UK is facing a no-deal Brexit, will they stop propping her up?
In the brief window of optimism after Chequers, there were congratulations for the Prime Minister for her victory. But it was never hers – it was a product of pressure from Brussels and the clock. The reality that has dawned on Brexiteers in Cabinet is that leaving the EU is a process more than it is a negotiation.
Even now, the remarkably durable European unity on Brexit empowers Brussels to continue pushing for the outcome it wants – either a Canada-style trade deal with new barriers and tariffs for British companies, or Norway-style membership of the EEA where the UK has little influence over EU rules.
Meanwhile, May must cling on to her own plan because it’s the only one she has, while knowing that it might cost her power at the hands of a disloyal and divided Cabinet and party.
Reality has caught up with Brexit this week, and it bites hard.