Embattled British PM at risk of agreeing to poor Brexit deal
Since the UK voted to leave the EU in 2016, the British government has been torn between whether a “soft” or “hard” Brexit should be pursued. In July, the Cabinet agreed to a plan known as the Chequers Deal, which would end the free movement of people but retain customs, trade and judicial commonalities with the EU.
Though not a final Brexit deal, the agreement set out the UK’s preferred way forward as negotiations with the EU reach a critical stage. Following several senior Cabinet resignations and polls suggesting that the majority of Britons disapprove of the deal, Prime Minister Theresa May finds herself in an incredibly tough position as she tries to extricate the UK from the EU in the best way possible with dwindling support at home.
The deal, or lack of it, is at the center of the most important moment in UK foreign policy for a generation. May, who doggedly stuck to her assertion that “Brexit means Brexit,” is currently faced with a marked disagreement over Chequers. Just this week, a group of Euroskeptic MPs rallied around the chief negotiator for the EU, Michel Barnier, and supported his assumption that the deal is “dead.”
High-profile resignations have shattered the Tory truce that has endured since the EU referendum. With Brexit looming, the government is under great pressure to secure a deal. In this context, a troubled autumn lies ahead for May now that Parliament has reconvened. Further Cabinet resignations are a real possibility.
Hard-line Brexiteers have made a series of undeliverable promises to their constituents, and are aware that opposing the government is a lot easier than taking responsibility for the impossibly difficult Brexit process.
To add to May’s woes, various groups whose support was previously forthcoming have abandoned the deal. Conservative moderates have begun to the desert the plan. As she presides over a hung Parliament, May is heavily reliant on support from the opposition.
With Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn under great pressure to push for a second referendum, and members of his shadow Cabinet being forced to resign for having voted with the Conservatives on Europe, May seems more likely to be the subject of a vote of no confidence as opposed to successfully negotiating an agreement on Brexit.
A troubled autumn lies ahead for Theresa May now that Parliament has reconvened.
Zaid M. Belbagi
The government must agree to a deal that will be accepted by Parliament and the EU. The Europeans have urged May to adopt a Canada-style deal, following Barnier’s clear response that Chequers was “not acceptable” and that the UK should purse a free-trade deal. With such an arrangement supported by former foreign secretary and leadership rival Boris Johnson, May must avoid empowering challengers if she is to secure the best possible deal.
Such grappling over policy highlights the very simple trade off that Britain is faced with: Either pool sovereignty and enjoy the economic benefits, or “take back control” and pay the inevitable economic price.
Brexit negotiations would be hard enough for any serving prime minister, but the very real challenges May faces from within her party and from Parliament make her task all the more difficult.
Chequers, which she attempted to strong-arm her Cabinet into, has all but fallen apart. Incomplete, ambiguous and completely unacceptable to the EU, the plan has fallen short. Services, for example, which cover 80 percent of Britain’s economy, are largely skirted over in the plan.
Interestingly, Nick Bowles, a former minister, has put forward a “Plan B.” More realistic in its objectives, it envisages a relationship similar to that which Norway has with the EU. Importantly, the plan suggests a delay in withdrawing from the EU.
This would be more palatable to May as with only 29 weeks left to the Brexit deadline, her torn party would not have the time or resources to go through a leadership contest that could take nearly two months.
Given the economic interdependence between the UK and EU, a complete rupture seems unlikely. The different proposals put forward by both sides stress commonality and partnership in certain areas, reflective of the economic realities that bind the two economies.
Brexit had offered significant opportunities to the UK, an outcome that has been overshadowed by the embattled prime minister and her party’s woes. With the UK currently hurtling toward an economic precipice, she must battle to win round the EU without losing the support of her party, Parliament, or any more Cabinet members to secure political independence without jeopardizing the economy.
• Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).