Theresa May needs to stop kicking the Brexit can down the road, and call the EU’s bluff, writes Brian Monteith
Yet another weekend, so yet another Sunday paper exclusive about a possible Brexit deal about to be signed between, and I choose my words carefully, Theresa May and EU negotiators. All it needs, apparently, is for her Cabinet to sign if off.
That eventuality is, however, no certainty for despite the resignation of David Davis and Boris Johnson following the imposition of Theresa May’s Chequers Plan, there still appears to be a handful of Cabinet members who can remember what she committed to deliver in her Lancaster House and Florence speeches – and what they collectively stood for in their party manifesto only last year.
Those included two simple statements; that the UK would leave the Single Market, and it would leave the Customs Union. No ifs, no buts, no caveats.
Since her speeches and her now infamous general election campaign the Prime Minister has wriggled and squirmed to try and get out of those commitments so she can deliver what she will call a “deal” – no matter how much it will tie the country indefinitely into terms that would not have been acceptable if they had been offered before the referendum in 2016.
The key point here is that, if given the authority, what the Prime Minister signs us up to will become a treaty under the Vienna convention making it nigh impossible to change. It is not just commentators such as this author who have been warning of this difficulty until we are blue in the face, we fortunately now have a more diligent Attorney General, Geoffrey Cox, stating this obvious legal inconvenience to the Cabinet. This has been enough for even past supporters of the Prime Minister’s negotiations to recognise the severe limitations they would face in delivering trade deals or changing our own laws. “Taking back” control would become “giving away” control to Brussels – risking an irate electorate and unhappy party members.
Central to being able to go back on her word but still carry her Cabinet, her party and eventually Parliament, has been three tactics that have become clearer as the months have passed.
The first is to postpone any decisions when there is a strong likelihood of them going against her; what is generally called “kicking the can down the road.” The purpose of this is not just to retain control of the decision-making process and its outcome (although that is crucial) but more to reach a point whereby likely opponents have no alternative but to back her worthless proposals, as there is no longer time left to develop an alternative – unless “No Deal” is to be the outcome.
Naturally, this plays directly into the EU’s negotiating hand; it has every incentive to make no concessions (for delay puts pressure on the UK to cave-in) so it too will kick the can down the road and at best only concede presentational compromises, not real ones.
From the UK’s perspective the only way to change anything of substance in the negotiating process can only come from either capitulating on aspects of principle – such as remaining inside the Single Market and Customs Union – or announcing the UK is walking away altogether from what have become one-sided negotiations to accept WTO terms of trade. Theresa May could do this and say she will reopen discussions once next year’s European elections have been held and there is a new commission to negotiate with – but instead she has chosen to betray the principles she spoke of and was elected on. That would give meaning to “no deal is better than a bad deal”, but she doesn’t believe it despite other countries such as the US and China having “no deal”.
The second device has been to divide the Cabinet and keep many of its members in the dark, with little time to read detailed papers. It is perfectly sensible for Prime Ministers to have a Cabinet sub-committee or what is often called a “war cabinet” to provide focus on daily management before going to full Cabinet. On such a vital matter as Brexit it is nothing other than manipulation for Cabinet members to be briefed in small groups so nobody is sure what is actually happening. This is a breakdown in Cabinet government that suits too many – including the official opposition (for they too are just as divided).
Finally and most importantly, for it transcends everything, is Downing Street’s use of intentionally opaque and confusing language in what it presents to Cabinet members (and leaks to the media). Briefings are so devoid of real meaning that they require an opinion from the Attorney General to reveal how the UK could face huge obligations when Cabinet members are being briefed falsely the terms are advantageous (as happened over the Withdrawal Agreement and the Backstop).
It is because of these tactics of delay, division and deflection that Cabinet members have now forced Theresa May to appoint the candid Attorney General to her Brexit War Cabinet. Without a briefing from him they will no longer vote things through.
We already have a Chequers Plan – that is remaining in the Single Market by another name through adoption of a so-called “common rule book”. Now the latest proposal is for what can only be called Chequers-Minus, for it is being claimed as a great victory with the Prime Minister winning concessions that will keep the whole UK in the Customs Union. But wait, she said (on many, many occasions) we would be leaving the Customs Union – why is it then an achievement to win concessions to stay in?
The latest new “deal” has no detail about an exit from any shadow Customs Union, suggesting it cannot have been agreed – which means it is worthless. Neither has the backstop been dropped, which means the EU can hold us within the proposed arrangement in perpetuity – thus rendering it worthless. The truth is no deal has been done.
So precarious is Theresa May’s position that she cannot afford to encourage more resignations and precipitate a leadership challenge that would be successful. Nor can she take a faux deal to parliament that would be rejected by over fifty Tory MPs that have now pledged in full public glare to oppose a Chequers-based deal. The alternative is to rely on Labour votes – a position that would surely make her tenure impossible.
Far better then to stop kicking the can down the road and calling the EU’s bluff – it has a time limit too, and it’s time we used it.