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Society, Politics & Law

The battle to save May’s middle way from falling between two Stuhls

Updated Thursday 29th November 2018

Theresa May is facing many challenges over Brexit and Alan Shipman reviews some of the major obstacles ahead of her.

Most readers confronted with a long and complex report turn instantly to the larger-print, shorter-worded Executive Summary, like the York Notes antidote to denser Shakespeare plays. So Britain’s political masters have shown classroom genius in their presentation of the Brexit route. The long-term future is spelt out in a short, non-binding Political Declaration built on eloquent and inspirational phrases, exuding ambition, shared values and the shared desire to maximise mutual benefits. This in principle leaves scope for the UK to forge an unprecedentedly close cooperation on trade, security, culture and other common interests, while enabling the UK to stand apart and cease to pay its subscription fee.

Meanwhile the immediate prospect, on which that glorious tomorrow must be built, is shrouded in the 580 dense legalistic pages of a non-negotiable Withdrawal Agreement. If there’s anything in this that doesn’t match up to earlier promises, the Prime Minister can point to phrases in the Declaration that might allow its future modification. Where the Agreement makes favourable concessions to the UK she can invert this logic, insisting they are set in stone that the Declaration cannot chip away.

Some even suspect the Agreement leaves UK borders open to immigration via Ireland and the Common Travel Area, or will just allow in more non-EU migrants to fill the gap. 

Even so, Theresa May will be tested – first by Parliament, then by public reaction – on the degree to which her deal matches her pledges made soon after the mid-2016 Referendum. In her January 2017 Lancaster House speech, defining what a ‘good’ deal would comprise, she drew ‘red lines’ (a boundary which could not be crossed) around the UK’s immediately regaining the power to sign its own trade deals (by leaving the EU customs union), set its own rules and slow down immigration (by leaving the single market), judge its own conduct (by letting its Supreme Court rule in place of the European Court of Justice, ECJ), and stop its EU budget contributions. This led Brexiteers to expect their independence immediately on leaving the EU on 29 March 2019, not at some unspecified future date (perhaps beyond the 2022 election) subject to mutual agreement and extensive further talks.  

Creative commons image Icon By Tiocfaidh ár lá 1916 on Flickr under Creative Commons BY-ND 4.0 license

BRINO backlash

For Euro-sceptics who cheered May’s Lancastrian vision, the Withdrawal Agreement crosses so many red lines that it’s a Brexit in Name Only (Brino), not worth the copious paper it was written on. They point to arrangements which, until a future trade deal or association agreement is achieved which solves the Irish border problem, will keep the UK in a customs union (‘arrangement’) and large elements of the single market. This will stop it concluding separate trade deals, or varying its regulations without Brussels’ approval, and keep it under ultimate ECJ jurisdiction even if a joint committee has a first go at solving problems.

Some even suspect the Agreement leaves UK borders open to immigration via Ireland and the Common Travel Area, or will just allow in more non-EU migrants to fill the gap. Brexiteers fear that by cautiously creeping out, instead of boldly leaping out, the UK will get stuck in a storm-blown backyard that will never reach the sunny uplands that lie beyond.

Remaining dissatisfied

Trade frictions are minimised by keeping tariffs aligned, and rules closely harmonised for sensitive service exports including finance. But even minimal friction could cause a catastrophic lapse from present friction-free arrangements, as when a few minutes’ stoppage time for Dover’s 10,000 daily trucks causes motorways to block and composts the perishable cargoes.

Remainers point out that immigration could have been restricted without leaving the EU, while employers warn of critical labour shortages if future curbs are too strict. And while some UK employees might temporarily gain from lessened competition with continental rivals, this comes at the cost of losing reciprocal opportunities abroad.

Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: By Conecta Abogados on Flickr The young people who mostly voted to remain in the EU were not around for the first series of Auf Wiedersehen Pet, an iconic television show in which recession-hit Midlands builders find work in booming West Germany and later Spain. But they recognise the dangers of not having a single market they can easily go to work in, and trade with, if things slow down at home – even if not convinced by studies suggesting that recent immigration from the EU has raised rather than compromised their work chances closer to home.

Pleasing neither side

The Prime Minister’s skill in delivering a deal that formally removes the UK from the EU, while keeping up extremely close links so as to keep an open Irish border and a clear path to trade talks, may well ensure parliamentary approval for her plans. They could even secure acceptance in a second referendum, if remaining or no-deal exit are pitches as the alternatives. May’s hope is that, when the alternatives are a No Deal condemned as disastrous by business groups and a No Brexit that would betray the referendum, voters will see hers as the only safe way forward.

If there’s another slowdown or recession, there will be resistance – from business leaders if not their employees – to any further steps away from Europe that would deepen short-term troubles even if they promise an eventual new dawn.

But her opponents have already branded this as the ongoing acceptance of EU rules without any voice in how they are set. Her solution risks going down as worse than either staying in the EU or making the ‘Clean’ break her first two Brexit Secretaries fought for. Behavioural tendencies suggest that public opinion, if and when tested again, may well [in opposition to business] prefer the uncertainty of a hard-Brexit No Deal to the sure losses of an ultra-soft deal.  

The strength of the ongoing EU ties imposed by the Agreement, and the weakness of commitments in the Declaration, raise the prospect that largely unchanged rules will continue to apply not just through the transition period to end-2020, but for at least two further years. This could be a nightmare scenario for Brexiteers. If the economy performs well and immigration slows down during this time, people will wonder why any further, potentially disruptive change is needed. If there’s another slowdown or recession, there will be resistance – from business leaders if not their employees – to any further steps away from Europe that would deepen short-term troubles even if they promise an eventual new dawn.

The TARP trap

If Prime Minister’s persuasion falls short, as rumblings from the pro-Brexit European Research Group suggest it might, she has one rescue strategy in reserve. This is to rely on an adverse external reaction to any parliamentary defeat, so that MPs rush back into the chamber to pass the measures on a second attempt. This approach is often named ‘TARP’ after the US Troubled Asset Relief Programme, a crisis-fighting debt relief scheme whose defeat in Congress on September 2008 sparked a financial market panic, which hastened the passage of a fractionally amended measure several days later. It could conceivably work if Mrs May can persuade the House that the defeat of her deal would mean a ‘No Deal’ Brexit, given the cascade of economic assessments associating this with grounded planes, collapsed investment plans and thirty-mile queues outside Dover.

But cliff-edge history rarely repeats itself. And on top of the dubious echoes of ‘voting twice’, given Mays strenuous stance against a second referendum, capitulating to the panic of capital markets might seem no more appealing than taking orders from Brussels. If parliament rejects the Deal, and (as the cabinet’s highest-profile returner insists) would disallow No Deal, May may become the premier whose soft Brexit stopped Brexit altogether.


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