The Great British Brexit saga looks as if it is stumbling towards its end game, with EU officials and UK cabinet approving the text of a withdrawal agreement.
To the astonishment of the many who thought Theresa May, Britain’s prime minister, would be long gone or too weak to conclude a deal to bring Britain out of the European Union, officials circulated draft text of key documents to be voted on at a UK Cabinet meeting on Wednesday. Since then, the prime minister has engaged in an almost non-stop attempt to persuade her divided cabinet to back the 585-page agreement hammered out by her officials and Michel Barnier, chief negotiator of the European Union.
The deal considered by the UK Cabinet involves Britain remaining much closer to the European Union for much longer than many ministers – and the strongly supported right-wing of the party – had envisaged or were prepared to accept. Those now outside government, including former cabinet ministers, were making their displeasure known as the emergency cabinet went beyond its allotted time, and then well into the evening. An ominous sign that disagreement inside 10 Downing Street was rife came when waiting journalists were told Mrs May would not, as planned, be making a statement until Thursday, in the House of Commons.
The UK Cabinet has now decided to back May but the deal, now published, has to be approved by the 27 remaining countries of the EU and by the European and the UK parliaments. The latter will prove the biggest hurdle.
The first task, which Mrs May hopes to achieve before Christmas, will be to draft and pass legislation. The prime minister will want to avoid a plethora of amendments that could derail the detailed pact. For the moment, billions of pounds of emergency funding allocated to a no-deal scenario can be kept in reserve.
Once the debate shifts back to Parliament, it becomes a numbers game. At this stage even the most astute political observers are having difficulty predicting the future. The single largest cadre of Conservative MPs are in the camp of the so-called European Research Group, led by the wealthy country-gentleman MP for West Somerset, Jacob Rees Mogg. Some of its strongest supporters are former Cabinet ministers, including the ambitious Boris Johnson, Mrs May’s accident-prone former foreign secretary, former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith, and the hapless David Davis, who served as Mrs May’s first Brexit secretary until his limited negotiating skills became apparent. Most of these politicians favour a hard Brexit though some are starting to reflect on the damage a complete break with the EU will have on the British economy.
Another significant group of MPs, from all parties, believe there should be a second referendum. They say that when voters are faced with the real choices now facing the nation, they will opt to remain in the EU. Their case received a huge lift a week ago when another Cabinet minister, Jo Johnson, brother of Boris, resigned. In his resignation statement, Johnson said he had supported Brexit after the 2016 vote but was now resigning because the country faced a choice between “vassalage” under Mrs May’s proposed deal or the “chaos” of crashing out of the EU. In a 1,600 word statement, Mr Johnson said the prime minister had mishandled Brexit: “To present the nation with a choice between two deeply unattractive outcomes, vassalage and chaos, is a failure of British statecraft on a scale unseen since the Suez crisis.”
The other major force in the political debate is, of course, the Opposition Labour Party. Its official position is that it needs to study the draft agreements, and leader Jeremy Corbyn is likely to want his party to vote against the deal. However, the party officially supports the concept of Britain remaining in the EU’s customs union and, while the draft specifies a limited time span, the alternative of no deal is absolutely unacceptable to Labourites. Corbyn hopes the Parliamentary vote will lead to a general election, but this seems unlikely.
The only thing we can be sure of is that Theresa May will carry on battling. Ken Clarke, a former Cabinet minister, describes her as a “most difficult woman”. Mrs May has proved her resilience in spite of what many said were impossible odds, and is not about voluntarily to give up now.
Colin Chapman FAIIA is a London-based writer, broadcaster and public speaker specialising in geopolitics, international economics and global media issues. He is a former president of AIIA NSW and was appointed a fellow of the AIIA in 2017.
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