May moves forward through the minefield
Not for the first time since she became Prime Minister, Theresa May faces a critical week that could threaten her premiership. Fresh from a G7 summit that exposed President Trump’s volatility and widened the growing global trade war, she steps into the political minefield of two days of parliamentary debate on the EU Withdrawal Bill.
On Wednesday the Commons will vote on Lords amendments relating to the Customs Union and the Single Market. The former is more symbolic than substantive in its legal effect. The latter, focused on membership of the EEA, is as likely to split Labour as the Government. But both are touchstone political issues and any Government defeat would be very problematic for the PM, though it seems likely that compromise on one and a divided opposition on the other will avoid that for now.
Meaningful vote flashpoint
The most significant division will come today on the so called ‘meaningful vote’ amendment. This would, in essence, remove the Government’s ability to present a final Brexit deal to Parliament as a last-minute ‘take it or leave it’ vote. That has always been seen as a crucial lever for the Government to compel MPs into backing whatever agreement is secured with the EU, given that rejection of such an agreement would be akin to backing ‘no deal’.
The ‘meaningful vote’ amendment transforms that position by handing Parliament control of the process. The Government would be forced to present the deal by a set date and would give Parliament the right to send the executive back to the negotiating table with a mandate set by the Commons if the deal was considered lacking, or judged unfavourable. Freed from the ‘take it or leave’ threat, MPs would be liberated to reject a deal without subjecting the UK to a cliff-edge fall.
With Parliament believed to be supportive of a ‘soft’ Brexit deal, in which the UK remains in close alignment with the EU, this outcome would further diminish the Prime Minister’s authority and push her towards such a policy. This is a deep concern for Brexiteers who are growing increasingly jittery by the day. They hope that heavy pressure on Tory Remainers from No10 and the right wing press not to impose a parliamentary defeat that could topple the Prime Minister will avoid that outcome.
However, a showdown seems unavoidable. Dominic Grieve MP, a leading Tory Remainer, has tabled a ‘compromise’ amendment that would still give Parliament control of the process. The rebels warn that if it is not accepted, which would be difficult for the Government, they will back the Lords amendment.
The resignation of a junior minister this morning, Philip Lee MP, so he can support the amendment on a meaningful vote, suggests this could be a knife edge division.”
May’s soft Brexit drift
Many Brexiteers are already alarmed by the gradual soft-Brexit drift of the Prime Minister. May has for some time been departing from the hard red lines first laid down in her January 2017 Lancaster House speech, including some of her bold commitments to take back control of money, laws and borders, on all of which she has subsequently weakened her position.
May’s original assertion that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ has lost its potency. The UK is clearly unprepared for such a scenario. The threat to turn the UK into a Singapore-style low tax, low regulation economy has evaporated. Concessions on the continued payment of funds and a continued role for the ECJ have been made. The ‘backstop’ offer to avoid a hard border in Ireland – originally agreed in principle last December – was a further crucial shift in keeping with the overall trajectory.
The UK’s revised backstop offer caused deep in divisions within Government to erupt last week. David Davis appeared close to resignation. Yet for all his bluster, the Brexit Secretary failed to fundamentally alter the terms of the British offer, which is for all the UK to remain aligned with the Customs Union for an unspecified period. Worse is to come for the hard Brexiteers; the Government explicitly recognises that it will need to make the EU an offer on regulatory alignment. Officials are confident that this would in effect tie the UK closely to the Single Market for goods.
That is a long way from the clean, hard Brexit many would like and reflects the decisive shift that May has made in recent weeks to put preservation of the Union ahead of future international trade deals. Given the wider context of a global trade conflict and the supreme unreliability of any US commitments to offer the UK a free trade deal, that is surely the only responsible step a UK Prime Minister could take.
There is no alternative?
Brexiteers may rail against May’s retreat from the Lancaster House position but they cannot offer a better plan. Tough talk about Britain not being strong enough in the negotiations – from the Foreign Secretary among others – is hot air. Any UK threat to walk away from the talks is baseless and the EU knows it. Hence civil servants hold to the mantra that ‘TINA will prevail’ (There is no alternative).
For all the turbulence around Brexit – which will be felt again soon through the negotiations, if not the parliamentary votes – it is possible to identify a bigger picture; a gradual, almost gravitational pull towards a deal in which the UK remains closely aligned to the EU both in terms of its customs arrangements and its regulatory system. In other words, a deal where the UK assumes ‘rule taker’ status for a prolonged period.
A long hot summer
There can be no firm predictions about the outcome of Brexit or May’s premiership. There are many more bumps and jolts that could plunge the whole process into chaos.
The mood at Westminster is so febrile and the Government so bitterly divided that May is only ever one lost vote or a ministerial resignation away from crisis. Personal political agendas are increasingly evident as various leadership contenders ready themselves for a future race. The threat is also external. If the EU sticks to rigid positions on free movement of people and the terms of an Irish backstop it could destabilise the Prime Minister beyond recovery.
For now, she continues to grind forward with grim determination and an absence of alternatives. But it will be a long hot summer where events could change the political landscape suddenly and dramatically.