May must put the good of her country above that of her party
There was an air of crisis, or at least urgency, when the British Cabinet met at Chequers, the prime minister’s picturesque Buckinghamshire countryside residence, on Friday. The peaceful surroundings could not conceal the tension among many participants in this extraordinary meeting that was aimed at rallying the entire Cabinet around Theresa May’s new Brexit negotiations plan. At last, and two years too late, May has decided to assert her authority over her colleagues when it comes to controlling the process that will lead the United Kingdom out of the European Union.
The ensuing political crisis was an almost inevitable result, prompted by the resignations of two senior ministers, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union David Davis. Both are hard Brexiteers of high political ambition. It remains to be seen whether it was their ideology or coveting of May’s job that was behind their decision to leave the government.
The ongoing battle, which precedes the referendum by many years and now dominates the political scene in Britain, reflects the sad reality that what is good for the country is not good for keeping the Conservative Party united and in power. Every aspect of the UK’s national interest requires that it remain an integral part of the EU, or at the very least achieve the softest of Brexits; whereas the well-being of the prime minister’s party necessitates appeasing a group of hard Brexiteers who hate the EU with an irrational passion. Last Friday, for the first time, there were signs that May might be putting the country before her party, leaving the impression that the government might be willing to adopt a more sensible approach to Brexit. As it happens, she now has a battle not only to save the Brexit negotiations, but also her government from disintegrating, let alone her own premiership.
When the white smoke, so to speak, cleared from over Chequers, it emerged that May’s fractious Cabinet had agreed, some of its members under duress, to match EU standards on goods and food, and also on future customs arrangements with the EU, including creating a UK-EU free trade area “which establishes a common rule book for industrial goods and agricultural products” in the aftermath of a transition period that will lead the UK out of Europe. This seemed to be too a hard pill for some of the Brexiteers to swallow, leading them to leave the government.
Already, the expected two-year transition period is, for all intents and purposes, an extension of the UK’s current full membership of the EU. Hardcore Brexiteers, not surprisingly, suspect that, even before serious negotiations with Brussels have commenced, the British government is making concessions that go against their interpretation of what the British people voted for in June 2016. For Brexit hardliners such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, the MP who appears to be leading the charge within the Conservatives against any compromise with Brussels, the government’s current position amounts to heresy. For him and his like-minded Tory MPs, the customs union, the single market, and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, not to mention the free movement of people, all have to be banished from the British political lexicon. They are adamant that Britain must start afresh in negotiating trade deals with the rest of the world, and erase European legislation from British law books at whatever cost.
Theresa May must demonstrate her authority over those who are putting their nationalistic and xenophobic tendencies above the genuine interests of their country.Yossi Mekelberg
Rees-Mogg made a call to arms for the Euroskeptics in his own party and across the country to reject the consensus achieved within the Cabinet. The hard Brexiteers are afraid that their narrowest of victories in the referendum on leaving the EU is under threat; as it should be, because both the process of reaching it and its outcome are profoundly harmful to the British economy and society.
What the government agreed to on Friday raises the genuine possibility of the UK remaining part of the customs union and single market, with a soft border in Ireland, as long as its negotiators can still manage to present this as a British exit. It might have also been a response to a number of captains of British industry, several of whom have recently warned that the lack of progress in negotiations to leave the EU and the fast approaching deadline for Britain’s exit is injecting intolerable instability into their businesses, to the extent that they are ready to relocate.
Tom Enders, CEO of Airbus, which employs 14,000 people in the UK, was bold in his criticism on the eve of the Chequers meeting, accusing the government of having “no clue” on how to leave the EU without severely harming the economy. It came in a week in which Jaguar Land Rover expressed its concern that a hard Brexit would be a source of grave concern for the company, which might force it to reconsider an £80 billion investment in its production plants in the UK, and consequently put 40,000 jobs at risk. This is just a small, though representative, sample of deep concerns in the business community about the government’s inability to reach some level of consensus on the parameters for negotiations, let alone make any progress in those talks with Brussels.
May leaned with some success on most of her Cabinet colleagues. However, despite the setbacks of the resignations from her government, if she cares for the good of the country and also wants to stay in power, she needs to continue to demonstrate more authority over those who are putting their nationalistic and xenophobic tendencies above the genuine interests of their country. Otherwise Britain will slide into a state of Brexit chaos driven by such people and her premiership will become devoid of any meaning. Her momentous task is to minimize the damage caused by leaving the EU, and this will require building a countrywide consensus that won’t necessarily come together along conventional or traditional party lines.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. Twitter: @YMekelberg
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