Bill Jamieson: Anger over Brexit set to trigger political earthquake

After Chequers plan, the Conservative Party no longer has a principle upon which it can unite, writes Bill Jamieson.

An armada of Brexit-supporting fishermen sail up the River Tyne (Picture: Getty)
An armada of Brexit-supporting fishermen sail up the River Tyne (Picture: Getty)

A “mad riddle”, an unholy mess, an unmitigated muddle. But if you think we have reached “peak chaos” on Brexit, think again, this drama has further to run. Anger and recrimination on the Government back benches and across the Conservative party nationally are at boiling point. Opposition to the Chequers “agreement” is mounting.

Much more damaging than Boris Johnston’s “Brexit is dying” letter of resignation is a detailed eight-page demolition of the Chequers accord written by Martin Howe QC now going the rounds. It declares that the UK’s treaty obligations “will be like signing a blank cheque ... the UK will be placing itself lower than any other independent state which has a treaty with the EU and on a par with [EU applicant] Moldova”.

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Joining the critique is the Conservative MP for Aberdeen South, Ross Thomson. Expressing his opposition to the Chequers statement, he warns that the Tories would be “screwed” going into a general election and MPs in marginal constituencies would lose their seats if the current proposal is not changed.

Meanwhile bitter denunciations pour in to Conservative HQ from supporters that the Prime Minister has betrayed them, that she has made a total mess of the Brexit negotiations and that they will never vote Tory again.

Really? There is nowhere at present for this surge of discontent to go. There is not enough support to mount a leadership challenge to Theresa May – and she herself has made clear she has no intention of quitting, however much my dear Scotsman fellow columnist Brian Monteith – and thousands of others – have urged her.

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The European Reform Group – Jacob Rees-Mogg and other Tory Brexiteers – could resign the Conservative whip and withdraw support in the next Commons vote. But this would split the Tory party asunder and risk triggering an election – which most backbenchers are in no mood to do. Ironically Theresa May will be kept in office by that most unlikely of props: no less than the leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, and his Marxist shadow chancellor John McDonnell. It is only fear of a Corbyn Government that holds what remains of the Conservative Party together. The Prime Minister is banking, not on winning support for her ‘Brexit in Name Only’ approach, but on a ‘him or me’ campaign in due course to bring fulminating party supporters reluctantly back onside.

So, large swatches of the country are all fired up – but have nowhere to go. The central tenet of party support, set out by the conservative thinker Edmund Burke almost 250 years ago, was that a “party is a body of men united, for promoting by their joint endeavours the national interest, upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed”. That can hardly be true of the Conservative Party now. For the convulsions over Brexit reach far deeper and strike chords more profound than evident disagreement on trade arrangements and the minutiae of border controls, important though these are.

At the heart of it is not one but a series of fundamental disagreements over ‘who rules’ – people or parliament, Brussels or Westminster, UK law or European law.

It is on these cardinal issues of sovereignty that the Martin Howe memorandum has focused. From the beginning, it takes issue with the concept of a “common rulebook”, which is only “common”, he writes, “in the sense that the UK would have to obey and apply in complete detail the laws promulgated by the EU without having a vote on the content of those laws”.

There is no indication in the text of the Chequers statement that the UK would have any ability to change any of the existing body of EU laws, however damaging they may be or become in the future.

And if this was not enough, there is the obligation to follow future changes to EU law. We would commit by treaty to ongoing harmonisation in the area covered by the EU rulebook. And while the UK parliament would have “the ability to choose not to” incorporate future changes into UK law, this is followed by the phrase “recognising that there would be consequences”.

It is hard to imagine that here in Scotland an SNP Government, presented with similar proposals in the aftermath of a ‘yes’ vote for independence in a second referendum, would regard them as acceptable.

What, for instance, would Holyrood’s lawyers make of the binding and so-called ‘independent’ arbitration procedure that, according to the Chequers statement, will accommodate “through a joint reference procedure the role of the Court of Justice of the European Union as the interpreter of EU rules, but founded on the principle that the court of one party cannot resolve disputes between the two”.

Read it out loud to capture its absurdity. Little wonder that Martin Howe describes this as “Delphic and seemingly self-contradictory”. Yet this is what it is proposed we sign up to, even before entering into further concessions in the negotiations with Brussels. Scottish lawyers would laugh it out of court.

Little wonder that in Conservative associations across the land there is a mood of exasperation over Theresa May’s leadership and comparisons with Neville Chamberlain and Munich. The very basis on which a political party depends – “united ... upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed” no longer applies.

So where does the anger and frustration go? The political ground across the UK is now becoming tinder dry and awaiting the emergence of a radical new entrant. Impossible? Across the continent, the mainstream parties that have dominated politics for decades are in retreat, faced with a rising tide of populism.

Voters, no longer responsive to the “we know best” admonitions from Brussels and disenchanted with their elites, have turned to new leaders and organisations. From where did Macron’s En Marche spring? Or Germany’s AFD? Or support for Italy’s most unlikely right-left coalition of Euro-sceptic populists that has usurped the centre?

Here, ironically, the political turmoil across Europe – for which the European Commission and its apologists are largely responsible – leads the way. So be prepared for surprises. This is becoming much bigger than Brexit.