On the significance of the recent resignations of the main Brexiteers.
Somewhat overshadowed by England’s improbable World Cup run, this past week may turn-out to be a key moment in the ongoing saga of Brexit – Britain’s purported exit from the European Union. So far, the two sides have agreed on a draft withdrawal plan that includes an “implementation period”—from exit on March 29, 2019, to Dec. 30, 2020—during which much of the status quo will be maintained, though the U.K. will no longer be involved in E.U. decision-making procedures. But Britain’s actual relationship to the E.U. after that is still somewhat ill-defined, and in a bid to clarify exact what the British want their relationship to be, the British Prime Minister Teresa May forced the issue at a weekend meeting of her Cabinet at Chequers, the PM’s official country house. That meeting led to a stunning round of resignations.
David Davis, the United Kingdom’s secretary of state for the exiting of the European Union (the “Brexit” secretary), resigned from office and was replaced by Dominic Raab, the former housing minister. Davis was joined by one of his deputy ministers, Steve Baker, who cited the same reasons Davis had for leaving. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson resigned the next day, calling the government’s Brexit negotiation stance tantamount to sending the U.K. toward “the status of a colony.” Two of the Conservative Party’s vice-chairs, Maria Caulfield and Ben Bradley, also resigned their posts. The resulting Cabinet reshuffle has put former health secretary Jeremy Hunt in as foreign secretary. Matt Hancock, former secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport, becomes health secretary. Attorney General Jeremy Wright becomes the digital secretary, and Geoffrey Cox is to be attorney general.
These resignations were all the result, purportedly, of the “Chequers memo,” a draft of Brexit negotiating terms reached during the meeting. Today the government published a 98 page white paper outlining the details of that negotiating stance. But earlier this week, the U.K. got a taste of the controversial memo through a three-page summary that showed plans for a significantly “softer” Brexit than Theresa May’s government had previously discussed.
What proved so controversial about the memo was that it included creating a combined customs territory between the European Union and the U.K. The U.K. would be obligated to police the traffic of goods to the E.U. and to apply E.U. tariffs when goods are destined for E.U. shipment. It would also abide by a common rulebook for all goods crossing the border in order to promote harmonization. The document also proposed splitting jurisdiction for some matters: a “joint institutional framework” would interpret agreements between the U.K. and the E.U., but British and European courts would handle cases and interpretation of their laws in their respective jurisdictions. Having previously committed to a full exit from the single market and a separation from E.U. jurisdiction (a “hard” Brexit), the terms that emerged from Chequers were an affront to hard-line Brexiteers in May’s government. To Davis and Johnson, these compromises were a betrayal of the spirit of Brexit.
The implications of this shake-up are bigger than who was moved in the cabinet reshuffle. They are bigger than the question of whether May will contest a no-confidence vote from her party (should one be held, sooner or later). These resignations, happening more than one year into Brexit negotiations, suggest something more fundamental: that May and her advisors, despite their ridiculous claims that “Brexit means Brexit”, have come to the realization that Brexit cannot after all be a clean break; that a “soft” Brexit – a situation in which there are still some economic and political ties to the E.U. – is the only practical option.
Despite the agreed-on transition period, both sides in the negotiations are under pressure to finalize a deal—including both the withdrawal agreement and the terms of a future relationship—before October, when the European Council is supposed to review the draft deal and push toward ratification. The next step in scheduled negotiations is to begin next week. The official Conservative Party stance—that is, until the Chequers memo—was to negotiate a “hard Brexit”: including leaving the E.U. customs union, leaving the single market and emancipating the U.K. from the jurisdiction of E.U. law. The government white paper explaining the details of the much softer proposal will likely surface more discontent; even before the white paper was released to the public there were reports of profound cabinet minister dissatisfaction. Considering that the Chequers meeting and the three-page teaser alone led to two Cabinet resignations, what follows is bound to be dramatic for May and her government. Boris Johnson’s resignation letter suggest the tenor of other critiques to come:
Brexit should be about opportunity and hope. It should be a chance to do things differently, to be more nimble and dynamic, and to maximize the particular advantages of the UK as an open, outward-looking global economy.
May’s response was straightforward: “I am sorry—and a little surprised—to receive [your resignation] after the productive discussions we had at Chequers on Friday, and the comprehensive and detailed proposal which we agreed as a Cabinet.”
The evident internal dissent suggests that May’s government is in danger, but the prospect of another leadership upheaval over Brexit, especially at the late stages of negotiations, is not something either the Tories and their E.U. counterparts really want or need (not that it might not happen anyway, given our current era of provocateurs creating chaos).
Right now, the U.K. finds itself halfway toward the deadline of Brexit negotiations, with a draft withdrawal plan but no final agreements signed, while simultaneously sorting through another domestic government upheaval. Despite this, the E.U. chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, has said that 80 percent of the Brexit deal is done. This contrasts starkly with previous E.U. statements and with the political upheaval in the U.K. But the E.U. has reason to encourage Britain’s new Brexit minister, Raab, to come to the table next week with the diluted terms; Barnier himself has said, “It will be clear, crystal clear at the end of this negotiation that the best situation, the best relationship with the E.U., will be to remain a member.”
That suggests the E.U.’s end game is still to restore the status quo, while the U.K.’s is still to break away from it. These goals are incompatible, and the British government is struggling with its internal incoherence concerning them. Over the course of a year, the Tories have been unable to cobble together a coherent solution to some threshold questions: What will happen to the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland? What does a mutually agreeable future trade deal look like?
And now to add misery to this company, Donald Trump comes to town fresh from throwing verbal bombs at the NATO summit. His visit is to Britain is already controversial: Trump is mostly avoiding London because of long-planned protests and instead will meet with Queen Elizabeth at Windsor Castle and with Prime Minister May at Chequers. He has joked that his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, happening the following Monday, will be the “easiest of all” his upcoming meetings, including his visit with May. Trump will undoubtedly further complicate the U.K. domestic picture. He has been notoriously supportive of Brexit, lauding it in 2016 as a “great victory.”
Trump’s visit might invigorate the hard Brexiteers and fill the press with hardline rhetoric, but when members of May’s own government lament the softening of negotiation terms but do not present reasonable alternatives, what is she to do but replace them with more pragmatic conservatives? And when her party questions her ability to lead in light of Chequers and the resignations, they are simultaneously considering the difficulty of rebuilding a government that can take on the enormous task of Brexit, within current deadlines, while also maintaining stability amid other pressing geopolitical matters.
Avoiding a patrolled border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland will require a customs and trade compromise. And despite Johnson’s suggestion that a soft Brexit portends colonization, the United Kingdom has legitimate economic and social interests in being a part of the single market; frictionless commerce and movement with the E.U. is beneficial to the U.K. A Norwegian-style model with a membership of the single market is technically possible, but it does include a painful democratic deficit that would be hard to swallow. Norway is a member of the E.U. single market and accordingly has to abide by all the rules that define this market, ranging from the minutiae to the massively important. But it’s the E.U. member states that decide the rules on the single market that Norway must follow. In fact, May seems to be seeking a semi-Norway solution for U.K. goods. But the E.U. is likely to want to go full-Norway. The irony is that, in actualizing the will of the people as manifested by a vote ostensibly distilling it, the government has run into a wall: What the people “wanted” may not be what’s best for them. Indeed, the British right-wing press is already claiming that “the people” have been sold out by the “elites”.
There is still the possibility that proponents of a hard Brexit will win this fight. If May is ousted, she might be replaced by a more dogmatic Tory Brexiteer. If that happens, negotiations will almost certainly be extended or the United Kingdom will be cast out of the E.U. with no deal at all, facing whatever barriers to trade and association that the E.U. can muster. But it seems to me that it is just as likely that the recent resignation chaos is an indication that the Brexit principle is finally giving way to pragmatism. Boris et al are throwing up their hands and crying “betrayal” because all the bluster and, frankly, reckless lies of the Brexiteers, are finally hitting the reality of what the path of “taking back control” means; because the hard Brexiteers never had a real plan for the future at all.