[Editors note: After this article was written, Theresa May officially announced she is leaving the position of Prime Minister on June 7th.]
Brexit has been a long, drawn-out saga. But finally, Theresa May’s indecision appears to be coming to an end. She has finally been cornered in a tragic opera with more twists and turns than Wagner’s Ring Cycle. May’s Götterdämmerung is reaching its conclusion. Brünnhilde is riding Grane, her trusty steed, into immolation on the funeral pyre of her heavily-amended withdrawal agreement.
Mrs May’s initial error was to seek consensus between Remainers and Brexiteers. In the words of one of her sacked advisers, Nick Timothy, she viewed Brexit as a damage-limitation exercise. Her mission statement evolved from her Lancaster House speech, when she declared she would deliver Brexit in terms which were clear, complying with the referendum and applauded by ardent Brexiteers. It became a fatally flawed compromise, which has failed to be ratified by MPs on three occasions so far, and a proposed fourth in the next week or so is likely to suffer the same fate.
Her problems started in earnest when she over-ruled her first Brexit secretary, David Davis. Unknown to her Brexit ministers, with her own civil service advisors she began negotiating behind her Brexit secretary’s back. Davis was informed of May’s Chequers proposal only a few days before that fateful Checkers meeting, following which Davis and Boris Johnson (Foreign Secretary) resigned from the Cabinet, while five other ministers and Parliamentary Private Secretaries also resigned.
If ever there was evidence that in politics you should keep your enemies close and your friends closer still, this was it. It has allowed those that have resigned to expose May’s duplicity to their fellow MPs and to organise the opposition to May’s Chequers proposal and the subsequent Withdrawal Agreement she cooked up with the EU.
Mrs May was always a Remainer, and her presence as Prime Minister has encouraged leading Europhiles to overturn the Brexit referendum. That is why she sees it as a damage limitation exercise: produce something that can be said to be Brexit, but still leaves the UK tied to Brussels. It is Hotel California, with Britain only leaving if both sides agree to it, or alternatively, Northern Ireland remains in the EU’s customs union. That cannot happen, not least because the DUP would end its vital support for May’s minority government.
Putting the Northern Ireland issue to one side, in order to get the agreement of the other EU nations for a full and final exit, the UK relies on “The duty of good faith which prohibits the deliberate exploitation of the implementation period to damage British interests” (Barclay’s emphasis). This was written in a letter by Steve Barclay, the current Brexit Secretary, to John Redwood, a senior Conservative backbench MP, in response to his concerns over the Withdrawal Agreement.
Good faith in politics? Barclay must be joking. Spain has a political interest in securing Gibraltar: won’t a future Spanish politician not be tempted to only agree to opening the door to Hotel California if Gibraltar is signed over? French fisherman enjoy free access to British fishing grounds. What French politician has the resolve to stand up to striking fisherman on a good-faith commitment? We haven’t seen one yet.
In short, May’s attempt to limit Brexit damage is a stitch-up, pleasing neither side of the House.
Labour’s Role in All This
In desperation, Mrs May has turned to Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party to gain sufficient support to push her Withdrawal Agreement through the House against the wishes of her own MPs. Corbyn is a Marxist, as is his Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell. Both of them have promoted far-left activists, who now have a high degree of control over both party policy and the selection of Labour MPs, meaning that moderates are being side-lined and expunged.
This creates Labour’s own crisis, with Marxist activists alienating moderate Labour voters in the constituencies. Furthermore, the Parliamentary Labour Party has its own split between Remainers and Brexiteers. The whole Brexit issue is a hot potato with which the Labour leadership would rather not be involved. It was with this in mind the Labour leadership held talks with Mrs May’s government, at her invitation, to try to find common ground.
Labours tactics were simple, only an increasingly desperate Prime Minister seemed unable to see them. Labour took and kept the moral high ground, appearing reasonable by accepting the invitation to talks. They ensured they would go nowhere (not difficult, given Mrs May’s stubbornness), then withdraw blaming her for the breakdown. Their hope is to force a general election following a No Confidence Motion only after Brexit has been resolved, capitalising on Mrs May’s disastrous handling of the Brexit issue. And if Mrs May brings her proposed withdrawal agreement to the House for a fourth time, they almost certainly won’t support it, again blaming Mrs May for her “failure to listen”.
The Labour leadership will be observing with interest the battle to succeed her, and it will be clear to them that either No Deal or a compromise in that direction will be the result. This is unlikely to worry them on two counts. Firstly, Labour will not want to alienate voters in their northern constituencies any further by compromising on Mrs May’s deal or anything close to it. And secondly, the leadership, being committed Marxists, will probably take the view that a “right-wing” Prime Minister will improve their own prospects in a general election.
It all points to a continuing strategy of not supporting Mrs May, avoiding any deal with the Conservatives, and hoping the Conservatives will elect a leader that will destroy the Conservatives’ electoral prospects.
Mrs May’s Likely Replacement
At the time of writing, it appears that Mrs May will fail disastrously if she puts her amended withdrawal agreement to a Commons vote for a fourth time. She has tried to appeal to the Remainers with a fourth vote by offering a possible second referendum if MPs back her bill. She has now broken every red line she previously set out. She may not even get the chance for it to be voted.
In the coming days, her position will surely become untenable, though we have all said that before. But this time, she will have exhausted every possibility and have nowhere else to go. And if the Conservative vote collapses in today’s European elections, the fence-sitters in Parliament will be galvanised into getting rid of her.
In the last few days, leadership contenders have been lining up their bids for the premiership. Those jostling for position are talking of everything but Brexit. The Remainers, such as Philip Hammond (the Chancellor) do not appear to be in the race and have become so unpopular outside Parliament that they wouldn’t get a mandate from the constituencies anyway. The next leader is very likely to be a staunch Brexiteer.
It would bore an international audience to list and analyse the runners, other than to concentrate on the clear favourite, Boris Johnson, who currently shows as 7/4-on. His nearest rival, Dominic Raab is 9/2-against. The news on Boris is for him both good and tricky. The good is that he is clearly the favourite with the constituency members, and if he can be one of the two names put forward, he should be home and dry. The tricky bit is Remainer MPs and fence-sitters in the parliamentary party, who claim to be one-nation Tories, would rather not support Boris.
He is regarded as right-wing, when in fact he favours freer markets, less regulation, and free trade. He is a classic Tory. It is the party’s middle ground that has become socialistic. In an op-ed in the Daily Telegraph he wrote the following:
“What we cannot now know – as the great French economist Bastiat observed in the 19th century – is the unseen opportunity cost of the way the UK economic structure has evolved to fit the EU over the last four and a half decades, and the productive ways in which it might now evolve.”
The reference to Frédéric Bastiat is important. He is referring to Bastiat’s parable of the broken window, which points out that the state’s intervention (the boy who broke the window) denies the more productive use of the baker’s money to his desired ends. The fact that Johnson knows the parable and understands the message is good evidence of his libertarian credentials.
That being the case, it is the socialistic element of the Conservative parliamentary party, masquerading as one-nation Tories, that he has to overcome. Reportedly, he has been having one-to-one meetings with his fellow MPs to do just that. Sometime ago, there was a well-founded belief that if Johnson became leader of the Conservative Party at least five MPs would resign the whip. Since then, Change UK, a dustbin of disillusioned Remainers has been formed with eleven MPs, three of which were Conservatives. It has been a complete failure and a sharp lesson to other would-be jumpers, so there are likely to be no more defections on a Johnson leadership.
Johnson has also been taking the advice of Lynton Crosby, probably the most successful political strategist today. It was Crosby who advised Scott Morrison in last weekend’s Australian election, when the expected Labour opposition victory was successfully overturned. He also advised Johnson in his successful elections as Mayor of London in 2008 and 2012.
This is interesting, because Johnson appears to be working to a carefully constructed plan. He avoids press comment over Brexit and writes about anything else in his Monday column at the Daily Telegraph. His contributions in Parliament have been brief, the few on Brexit generally confined to democracy rather than trade. He has positioned himself to rescue the party from electoral destruction if called upon, rather than appear to be an overtly ambitious politician, unlike all the other contenders. It is quite Churchillian, in the sense there is a parallel with Churchill’s election by his peers to lead the nation in its darkest hour. He even wrote about it in a recent bestseller, The Churchill Factor,and understands intimately what it took for Churchill to gain the support of the House.
It is therefore hardly surprising Johnson is the favourite to succeed Mrs May. His appreciation of free markets means he is not frightened by trading with the EU on WTO terms. Furthermore, President Trump admires him, and would be likely to fast-track a US trade deal with the UK. However, Johnson is likely to pursue a deal on radically different terms on a take-it-or-leave-it basis with no further extensions to Exit Day.
As soon as the 31 October deadline has passed, Remainers will no longer have a cause. They have yet to appreciate the fact, and they may vote for him in the hope that after restoring the party’s fortunes, they can get rid of him and mend relations with the EU. But the Brexit debate would effectively end after Exit Day and its divisiveness with it. Farage’s Brexit party will wither on the vine, its purpose of restoring democratic accountability to Parliament and delivering Brexit being restored.
Johnson would then have the task of rebuilding the party for the next general election, set for 5 May 2022.
In the coming days, having seen Mrs May’s last roll of the dice, all these factors will be uppermost in the minds of both backbenchers and of government ministers in their private capacity. If there is one thing that is certain, the Conservative Party is a survivor. If Boris Johnson is the best option, MPs will swallow their prejudices and elect him.