May soon to become a victim of Tory civil war
The most depressing aspect of the withdrawal agreement the British Cabinet in theory agreed last Wednesday is that the Brexit circus could continue until December 2020, and even beyond. The grand theme for the Brexiteers has been the need to “take back control,” yet these Brexiteers have authored a gargantuan whirlpool of mayhem and chaos. It has all the hallmarks of Britain being tossed around between the Scylla of this Brexit deal and the Charybdis of a no deal. With every hour of every day, more British voters want to avoid either monster and back off, courtesy of a second referendum.
Fantasy politics is in full flow in this horror show. The Brexiteers who have overseen the talks with the EU have shown an incredible deficit in basics skills of negotiation and also understanding of the EU. Their fantasies having crashed against the harsh reality of fact and reason, they have largely abandoned ship in a desperate effort to dodge the blame. In July, key leavers Boris Johnson and David Davis resigned and flounced out. Last week, Davis’ successor in charge of Brexit negotiations, Dominic Raab, also jumped, along with other Brexiteers.
Prime Minister Theresa May conducts the increasingly Remainer orchestra on the deck of the Titanic. Her resilience and determination cannot mask the difficulties of selling the withdrawal deal that will satisfy very few. Five Brexiteers remain in Cabinet, believing they can conduct a rescue by negotiating “improvements” to the deal before the EU summit on Nov. 25. The EU insists it cannot be altered.
The deal outlines the terms of Britain’s exit but not its future relationship with the EU, which is something to be agreed upon in the 21-month transition period. Only a handful of voters will wade through the 585-page document. May argues that this deal delivers on ending freedom of movement and the role of the European Court of Justice. The most indigestible elements for critics are, firstly, how long the transition period could be extended and, secondly, the so-called backstop arrangements for Northern Ireland. This would involve Britain being in a temporary customs union, whose termination “the Union and the United Kingdom decide jointly.” In other words, Britain could not leave it unilaterally. Opponents argue that Britain would become a vassal state in a “Hotel California” situation, where it could never leave.
Some would even prefer to remain in the EU over this dodgy deal. One Conservative ex-minister told me: “This deal is so radioactive, nobody can touch it and survive.”
Basic Parliamentary arithmetic means the agreement will not pass. To pretend it might is head in the sand territory. Neither Brexiteers nor Remainers will support it, leaving its only backers to be those who do so just to avoid the bigger nightmare of Britain leaving the EU with no deal. The challenge for May is that the only way to get sufficient politicians to swallow the withdrawal agreement would be a credible deal on the future relationship with the EU. This is way off beyond the horizon.
The daily, even hourly, question is how long May will survive. As she and her diminishing cohort of backers circle the wagons, the extreme right of the Conservative Party has threatened a leadership challenge almost daily for weeks. Letters of no confidence in her have been amassed but, as yet, this number has not reached the 48 required to trigger a no-confidence vote. Despite their bark, few leading Brexiteers want to take over such a shambolic situation, lacking the courage to take ownership of the situation. Many fear that any such move would be seen as reprehensibly irresponsible at a time of national crisis. Moreover, it could delay Brexit and even risk it happening at all.
Prime Minister Theresa May conducts the increasingly Remainer orchestra on the deck of the Titanic. Her resilience and determination cannot mask the difficulties of selling the withdrawal deal that will satisfy very few.
The civil war inside the Conservative Party will persist. May does not head a single party but a problematic quarrelsome coalition that may not be able to hold together. The shock troops of the European Reform Group cannot abide the foot soldiers of the remain side of the party. In many other political systems, the party would have split two to three ways. The British political system, unlike the German, Italian and Israeli variants, however, is not kind to smaller parties.
Across the aisle, it may not be civil war but the Labour Party remains ill at ease with its leadership. Never a devoted Remainer, Jeremy Corbyn has refused to back supporting a second referendum — a position his party would largely like him to adopt. Even then, the danger for Labour would be voting down the deal on the table, leading to a no-deal scenario. Instead Corbyn echoes the arch-Brexiteers in claiming that he could get a better deal with the EU in time for the March 29 deadline.
Any deal will only attract support from the ever-shrinking center of British politics. Compromises and fudges cannot bridge the gaps. Brexiteers want to leave, many without a deal at all. Remainers just want to ditch the whole process. The British people will just have to pick up the pieces from the wreckage when it is all over.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first-class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic studies at Exeter University. Twitter: @Doylech