Australian Outlook

A Very British Melodrama

05 Apr 2019
By Colin Chapman FAIIA
This week Theresa May sat down with Jeremy Corbyn to try to reach a compromise on the Brexit deal. By all accounts, the results were underwhelming. Source: Dom Pates, Flickr

In the latest act of the never-ending Brexit melodrama, Theresa May sat down for tea with Jeremy Corbyn to try to reach a compromise. But not content with the acrimony she received from some members of her party for doing so, she has now written to the European Council to request a three-month extension to the Brexit deadline and ceded she will hold elections for the European Parliament if it is granted.

“David Jones,” intoned theatrical House of Commons Speaker John Berkow. The hard-right well-preened Tory backbencher jumped to his feet with the alacrity of a bit-player determined to make his mark at televised prime minister’s question time.  The member of the inappropriately-named European Research Group (ERG) asked Theresa May: “Does it remain the position of the prime minister that the leader of the opposition is not fit to govern?”

Mrs May had incurred the seething wrath of the ERG by inviting the Labour Opposition Leader Jeremy Corbyn to a private tea party to see if they could find common ground to solve the Brexit fiasco, agreeing to a way to avoid Britain being tipped out of the European Union without a deal at the end of next week.

The prime minister may have lost control of Parliament and of the Conservative party, but she is not stupid. She knew she would be accused of “supping with the devil” and had already been subjected to backbench jibes about falling for the “wily words of a Marxist.”

“No,” she replied tartly, she had many differences of opinion with Mr Corbyn, particularly on the economy, adding with venom: “Let me highlight one issue. When we suffered a chemical attack on the streets of Salisbury, it was me as the prime minister and this government that stood up against the perpetrators of that attack. The right honourable gentleman preferred to believe Vladimir Putin rather than our security services. That’s why he is not fit to be prime minister.”

Despite misgivings from some members of both Conservative and Labour parties, accompanied by a handful of officials and ministers May and Corbyn’s meeting lasted just under two hours. Afterward, Corbyn said the meeting had been “useful but inconclusive” without as much “change as I expected in her position.” The leaders did, however, agree to form working parties to consider the detail, which met for over four hours on Thursday.

The major participants in the Wednesday talks were David Liddington, deputy prime minister; Stephen Barclay, Brexit secretary; and Sir Keir Sturmer, shadow Brexit secretary. Following the meeting, 10 Downing Street put out an emollient and misleading statement saying the talks had been “detailed and productive.” I understand May gave instructions that there could be no giving of ground on her “red line” objecting to a Customs Union. However, the talks are expected to continue today, Friday, with the prime minister hoping to have something tangible to take to the special summit of EU leaders on Wednesday 10 April.

There is a great deal of suspicion in and beyond Westminster as to May’s motives in what amounts to one of the biggest U-turns in UK politics. The prime minister has been absolutely opposed, ideologically and repeatedly, to Britain remaining in the European Customs Union and Single Market; both are the major planks of Labour policy on Europe. Many, if not most, leading economists believe that leaving these core institutions of the common market are likely to be the most damaging to the British economy, particularly the manufacturing industry. Already the auto, aerospace and financial services industries have announced contractions in their operations in anticipation of Brexit.

Also, May has been firmly wedded to what she sees as the principal benefits of the deal she negotiated with the European Commission’s Michel Barnier, a deal that was rejected three times by the House of Commons. These provide the right to limit freedom of movement into the United Kingdom, and the freedom for it to negotiate its own international trade deals, rather than have these delegated to Brussels.

Those who take May at her word – albeit a diminishing number – say she realises that her withdrawal agreement with the European Union cannot be revived without the support of Corbyn and Labour and that she is now, belatedly, working in the national interest.

Suspicious Labour MPs, especially the substantial number whose preference is a second referendum, fear that the prime minister’s tactics are a ruse to persuade Corbyn to support the thrice-failed withdrawal agreement in return for a promise that the government would seek to negotiate an EU trade deal that would meet Labour’s customs union ambitions. They point out that, even if May signed off on such an agreement, she has pledged to resign once her deal is approved, and her successor would be free to tear it up if he or she so wished.

Given that ERG supporter Boris Johnson, a former foreign secretary under May, is the bookies’ favourite to be the next prime minister, the suspicions are well-founded. Mr Johnson has made it clear that he would do exactly that. He is one of the strongest advocates of the United Kingdom crashing out of the European Union without a deal next Friday.

Meanwhile, another extraordinary drama is being played out in the House of Lords. On Thursday, Mrs May’s government failed to block a cross-party Bill in the House of Commons to prevent a no-deal Brexit on 12 April. Spearheaded by Labour’s Yvette Cooper and the Conservative Sir Oliver Letwin, the bill which seeks to instruct the prime minister to ask for an extension to Article 50 next week, passed its third reading in just six frantic and highly contentious hours. It won MPs’ support by a majority of just one, 312 for and 311 against.

The Bill is now before the House of Lords. Although the upper house is expected to support it, the hard Brexiteers have not given up their fight to block it. It quickly became clear the Lords would not pass the bill in a few hours as the Commons had. At the end of the day, their lordships were still arguing over procedural matters, with hard Brexiteers using filibuster tactics to try and prevent it meeting its deadline for final Commons approval and royal assent next Tuesday.

Many members of the Lords argued for detailed scrutiny of the Bill; those who did were generally not well known, even to those who follow politics. Their actions have provoked an unexpected revival of that erstwhile lost cause – House of Lords reform. Meanwhile, the best hope for the Cooper-Letwin bill is that it will be back for debate in the Commons on Monday night.

What will happen next week? Like Laura Kuensberger, the workaholic political editor of the BBC, the only answer is, “I simply don’t know.”

The next key decision will come next Wednesday in Brussels, at another summit of all 28 EU leaders, including Mrs May. Until now the European Commission have played hardball, insisting that Mrs May will have to come up with a solid proposal by 10 April if Britain is not to crash out of the European Union to an uncertain future on 12 April. Mrs May has said she will be asking for a short extension. Assuming the Cooper-Letwin Bill gets parliamentary approval, the pressure will be for an extension of at least a year.

French President Emmanuel Macron is sniffy about that. He is tired of Britain and its procrastination. But other more important EU actors, Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel and European Council President Donald Tusk, sounded conciliatory. Neither wants Britain to crash out; both value having the world’s sixth largest economy within the ambit of the European Union, even if not a member. And they would hate to see Boris Johnson in Number Ten.

Ahead of Wednesday’s meeting, Mrs May has now written to Mr Tusk asking for Article 50 to be extended for three months until 30 June. In her letter, Mrs May acknowledged that she is now reluctantly planning to hold elections for membership of the European Parliament in May, a move she has up to now refused even to consider. Mr Tusk has also said he favours a one-year extension to Article 50, and this is the most likely outcome next Wednesday, though it may ruffle the feathers of the French.

The high drama of Brexit continues, onto the next act.

Colin Chapman is a writer, broadcaster and public speaker, who specialises 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.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.