If you were a Conservative MP and wanted to stop Brexit – or at least deliver the softest one possible – how might you go about trying to do so? There are various options.
One is to snarl up the EU Withdrawal Bill, which returns to the Commons this week, with a mass of time-consuming amendments.
A more drastic means is to join the campaign to sack Boris Johnson, the Cabinet’s leading backer of Leave, over his mishandling of the plight of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British woman in Iran. The Observer goes full-throttle to get the Foreign Secretary out this morning, carrying a Jeremy Corbyn article arguing that he should be fired.
The most dramatic is to back the backbench campaign to force the Prime Minister out of Downing Street, which may have been given a boost by her response to the wave of allegations that recently swept through Westminster.
There is no knowing whether more Tory MPs – bound by a new Party code of conduct that will be unwelcome to most; faced with the possibility of a new disciplinary IPSA, and alarmed by seeing a colleague suspended without being told why – have joined the push to oust Theresa May. This morning, the plotters claim that they are eight votes short of the 48 MPs required to force a no-confidence vote in her. But if you were one of their number, you might well brief out an inflated estimate of your numbers, in an attempt to bluff more colleagues on to your bandwagon, and get it rolling. Or the claim may be true after all. There is no way of telling.
A less direct way of seeking to derail leaving the EU is to put it about that our interlocutors have forced the Government to fold during the negotiation – and that more humiliation is to come. Is the claim true?
To test it, one must travel back in time little more than a year, and revisit the Prime Minister’s speech to last year’s Conservative conference. In it, she set out a policy framework: triggering Article 50 by the end of last March; leaving the jurisdiction of the European Court, and taking control of immigration. In her words, her aim during the coming negotiation is “to establish a relationship anything like the one we have had for the last forty years or more. So it is not going to a “Norway model”. It’s not going to be a “Switzerland model”. It is going to be an agreement between an independent, sovereign United Kingdom and the European Union.”
The following January, she put flesh on the bones of her party conference speech by making another at Lancaster House. This spelt out in terms that Britain will leave the Single Market and Customs Union as members. May also said clearly that “no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain”.
It is important to note that she did not rule out a transition or implementation period – because the subject was skirted altogether in the speech – and nor did she discuss paying money to the EU in any detail. The Conservative Manifesto of last June blurred that last matter. It said that the days of “vast annual contributions” will end, but also that there will be a “fair settlement”, which will be “in accordance with the law and in the spirit [our italics] of the UK’s continuing partnership with the EU.
The origins of her offer to pay £20 billion to the EU, briefed out at the time of her Florence speech in September, lies in that last clause. Such a payment would not be part of the “divorce settlement”. Nor would it be for another purpose mentioned in the manifesto, which said that there might be “specific European programmes in which we might want to participate and if so, it will be reasonable that we make a contribution”. Rather, it would be to honour obligations entered into before the EU referendum. The Florence speech also dealt with implementation/transition.
So what elements of that emerging programme has the Government backed down on? We can think of three main ones.
First, there was its attempt to move Article 50 without a vote in Parliament – though the legal success of Gina Miller and others in forcing a vote turned out, by exquisite irony, to boost the cause of Brexit, since Article 50 was voted through overwhelmingly.
Second, there was the idea, hinted at in the Lancaster House speech and driven from Downing Street, of seeking to trade off continued defence and security co-operation for a fully-fledged free deal. That was promptly dropped. Indeed, the cornerstone of the Florence Speech was the offer of a new security partnership.
Finally, there was David Davis’s declaration of intent about the sequencing of negotiations. Last spring, he said that the Government would resist attempts to discuss the financial settlement before a trade deal. And last summer, it folded. The reason for this was simple. In Ministers’ judgement, the general election had not delivered the Government a majority sufficient to resist the EU’s sequencing demand. They feared that if they tried to do so, the Commons would force them to abandon the attempt.
Looking ahead, a mass of icebergs loom, even if this latest push to oust May comes to nothing. The withdrawal bill may be derailed. There may be a crisis in December if the go-ahead for trade talks is not agreed. Much more money may be offered than most voters think reasonable. A fully-fledged agreement may not be reached before March 2019. Negotiations may spill over into the implementation period, which would mean that it would not be such a period at all. Britain might then be stuck in an EEA-style transition semi-permanently. There is no Cabinet agreement over how to handle regulatory divergence. There is a big questionmark over the degree of preparedness for No Deal.
None the less, it cannot fairly be claimed, if one looks back at the story of the negotiation to date, that the Government has been driven off its negotiating fundamentals: leaving the EU by the end of March, 2019; quitting the jurisdiction of the ECJ; taking back control of our borders; ending Single Market membership, and ending Customs Union membership (currently the subject of another push by the EU27 and Commission over the Irish border). Furthermore, our media is not set up to probe the differences and divisions among our negotiating partners, which are no less real for not being adequately covered. Certainly, there are aspects of the strategy that should have been handled more deftly, such as the future of EU nationals in Britain, but its essence remains intact – however much a small minority of Conservative MPs, and others, might wish it to be otherwise.