Well, on both sides of the Atlantic, the springs and sprockets are flying out of the populist right machine. In the US, Trump has reportedly retreated into a “cocoon of bitterness and resentment” at the now clear disaster of the midterms, with his “executive time” — TV and Twitter — upped to nine hours a day. It. Is. So. Good.
It’s a lotta fun in the UK too, as trying to square a Brexit deal has taken the Conservative Party to full and open revolt, the possible internal toppling of PM Theresa May, and the threat of a defeat in the Commons. The point at issue is May’s latest draft withdrawal agreement for a post-Brexit relationship between the UK and the EU which is, well, isn’t. The cleanest option — and one in keeping with the spirit of many Leave voters — is a “no deal” exit, in which the UK pays no money, has no obligations and is free to contract free trade agreements with all the countries just queuing up to sing on the dotted line. May and the Tory mainstream (i.e. Remainers, stuck with managing the exit) have been trying to craft a deal that will ensure that the UK does not suddenly lose smooth access to a market of 300 million people, and satisfy their Rule Britannia base at the same time.
The withdrawal agreement has two major stages in it, and, as ever, will leave someone holding the baby. The first is a six-month period in which the UK and the EU attempt to negotiate an ongoing post-Brexit trade agreement. During that time, a no-border customs union remains in place, essentially as the UK-inclusive EU is now. This is necessary to deal with the Northern Ireland-Republic of Ireland border, and prevent it being a policed, “hard” border once again.
But if an agreement cannot be concluded in six months — spoiler alert, there’s no chance of that — the customs union remains in place indefinitely. That subordinates the UK Parliament to the same EU regulations that Leave voters wanted to ditch — a lot of it nonsense about the EU banning “too-curved bananas” and such (a lot of it written by a UK Telegraph Brussels correspondent named Boris Johnson years ago). The kicker is that the UK can only exit this so-called “backstop” if a joint UK-EU committee agrees to such.
The agreement also demands that a whole range of EU law, to which the UK is currently subject, simply be cut-and-pasted into UK law post-Brexit, so that the UK cannot gain market advantage with crappy labour and environmental standards. That would make it subject to an arbitration committee and ultimately to the European Court of Justice. Further provisions protect the rights of EU citizens in the UK.
So it’s hard to see how the agreement amounts to any sort of Brexit at all. The EU has agreed to it — they would! — if it can be got through the UK parliament. Two days ago, May appeared to have got cabinet authorisation for it. But that has now begun to come apart, with the resignation of two cabinet members (Esther McVey and Dominic Raab) and two junior ministers. The Conservative Party is now in open revolt with Leave rebels coming close to the 48 votes required to force a party vote of confidence in May’s leadership.
They would need 158 votes to topple her, which is a tall order, but if they could pass triple figures then May would be finished immediately, instead of finished later. The Northern-Ireland unionist DUP opposes the deal because of the so-called “backstop” — which would see Northern Ireland alone subject to the more extended suite of EU rules, in order to keep the border within the island of Ireland open. That puts a border between NI and Great Britain within the UK as a whole. Opposing that is the DUP’s middle name — literally — and the government depends on the DUP for its majority.
So even if the cabinet support holds, the chances of getting the deal through parliament are virtually nil. Their only chance would be if sufficient Remain Labour MPs break from the party’s opposition to it — and its demands for a fresh election — to support them. That remains unlikely, and would finish May as Tory leader/PM if it occurred. There seems no ways out.
In light of that, the usual armchair leavers are damning May’s negotiating, strategy, etc. But this is simply a continuation of the fantasy that motivated Brexit in the first place — that once a decision to leave was achieved, the EU would simply roll over and beg for a deal with the mighty British Empire. Some of the Leave elite hold this fantasy, others have always been more realistic, and gulling the wider Leave electorate. But among the wider voters that amorphous fantasy is widespread — that, as well as turning off the tap on immigration, leaving the EU would allow British brio and vim to burst through once again.
Instead, the UK has found itself in exactly the same position that Greece was in, when Syriza was elected, and tried to negotiate a common-sense deal in good faith. The EU is simply indifferent to what the British people have decided (however that decision was made). Labour has a leadership tough enough to not be gulled into compromising in “the national interest”. Attempts to form a new centrist party are in chaos (though may eventuate ). The opportunity is to deliver the Conservatives a crush blow, and win power with a socialist leadership.
It’s still a long shot, but like the English Channel, or the Atlantic for that matter, it’s a lot narrower than you think.