There are less than nine months to go before the United Kingdom is scheduled to leave the European Union on 29 March 2019. For many Britons this is a welcome step in the fight back against liberal elites. Others, like me, feel sick at the thought of it. In the middle of all this is the UK Conservative government led by Theresa May. How is she coping? Better than most people give her credit for.
Mrs May is not the ablest among our political leaders, who are not an especially able bunch. The so-called Windrush scandal shows this, when perfectly legal and established residents of this country were harassed and even deported because of gaps in their paperwork. This has her fingerprints all over it, from her time as Home Secretary. She failed to see that this was where her policy of a “hostile environment” for illegal immigrants would lead, in spite of being warned. Without an established system for proving identity, rejected as an intrusion of Anglo-Saxon traditions, proving that you are legally here, and thus whether or not the authorities should be hostile to you, was always going to be the problem.
So for something of the complexity of Brexit, Mrs May does not look well equipped. Her start showed the same sort of lack of imagination that led to the Windrush scandal. She set three clear parameters, “red lines”, for Brexit. Control of immigration; no payments into the EU budget; no jurisdiction of the European court. That seemed quite common-sense, given that all three issues played a prominent part in the referendum campaign. But the whole system of seamless trading with the EU depends on arbitration by the European Court; the EU (as do many countries, in particular India) sees immigration and trade as being closely linked; and the lubrication to make complex deals work is money. Mrs May’s red lines were leading to a very hard Brexit, whereby the UK’s relationship with its main trading partners would be put on the same level as, for example, the United States.
For many supporters of Brexit, especially among the political and business elite, that was the whole point of it. For them the EU is a completely misconceived exercise, and by placing it at arms length it would give the country greater freedom to engage with the rest of the world. But there are at least two major problems. The first is just how disruptive such a change would be. There is not just the question of tariffs being imposed on goods that passed over the border, but regulatory compliance, country of origin rules, and value added tax would all have to be administered there, until some sort of alternative infrastructure, not subject to the European Court, was devised. Without it a massive snarl-up would develop at borders, with motorways clogged by waiting traffic, quickly leading to supply shortages, empty shop shelves and job lay-offs. Of course this would all resolve itself in time. But the disruption could go on for a long time and wreak damage that would take years to fix. And, a bit like the financial crash of 2008, it could be very hard to get back to where the country was before.
The second major problem is Northern Ireland. The Good Friday agreement that established relations between the province’s two main communities depended on quite a bit of fudge based on the fact that both the UK and Ireland are EU members. The most powerful symbol of this is an open border. The Irish government, and the Catholic community in the North, insist that this open border should continue after the break. How on Earth is that compatible with a hard Brexit? That this should be such a big issue drives Brexiteers mad: it looks completely disproportionate. But that Ireland should loom so large in British politics, and cause such inconvenient disruption, will surprise nobody familiar with the last five centuries of British history. After deeply flawed attempts by the British to control and colonise Ireland, the island has repeatedly come back to haunt British politics. If the Irish Brexit problem isn’t solved properly there is a big risk of communal violence of some sort. Much as most Britons would like to abandon Northern Ireland, that just can’t be done.
Mrs May takes both problems seriously. They are, of course, being used by Remainers to undermine confidence in the whole project. But that doesn’t stop them being real. Her strategy has been to keep talking hard Brexit, while gradually softening her stance. That means some form of regulatory alignment and coordination of customs arrangements, adding up to some form of customs union, together with compromises on the European Court and the mutual rights of citizens. It is easy to despise this as “kicking the can down the road”, but she is slowly outmanoeuvring both advocates of a hard Brexit, and closet Remainers who want to collapse the whole project.
The latter group, the Remainers, are now pretty much beaten. Though the idea of a further referendum (not a repeat one, you understand) is gaining hold among the public at large, together with doubts about Brexit itself, it is in Parliament that things matter. But the Remain side need enough Conservative rebels to stand their ground. They haven’t. The government scored a decisive victory in recent votes which attempted to give parliament more of a say over the process. One problem is that most of these rebels need to stay in the closet, and not admit that they want to destroy Brexit. A second is that they do not wish to force a chaotic election which might let the Labour Party into power. Meanwhile, the Labour leadership will not press the government to the point of a further referendum, still less breaking off Brexit.
Mrs May’s next problem will be to face down hardline Brexiteers who reject her compromises. There are at least fifty Conservative MPs who fall into this camp. But this group is being steadily outmanoeuvred. Passionate as they are, they have been unable to offer any practical solutions to the issues of transitional disruption of the economy, nor of Ireland. This group has always been backseat drivers, full of lots of clever theories about why things will be all OK, or somebody else’s fault, and who think you negotiate complex intergovernmental deals in the same way that you negotiate a house purchase. There is no convincing rival plan. They seem to want to storm out of negotiations with the EU, daring them to let a “no-deal” happen, but without a viable alternative deal in mind. This lack of practicality means that they are becoming politically isolated. Dare Mrs May face them down?
What can the Conservative hardliners do? The have enough MPs to force a confidence vote in Mrs May, which would then trigger a leadership election. But surely Mrs May has the grudging support of enough MPs to win any such vote if it was called – which would then protect her from further challenges for 12 months. They could resign the Conservative whip, depriving the government of its majority. But if Labour then put forward a vote of no confidence in the government, would the rebels let Mrs May’s government fall? That would either provoke a chaotic General Election, or some kind of transitional accommodation between Labour and the Conservatives to get through the last months of the Brexit negotiations. It is hard to see how either would be to the hardliners’ advantage.
So, a bit like the closet Remainers, I think the attempted rebellion by the hardline Brexiteers will fizzle. That will leave Mrs May to strike the sort of fudged and muddled deal with the EU, arrived at in the last minute, which is what most international negotiation usually ends up with. There will surely be some nasty disruption as Britain’s exit comes about, but not as bad as it might have been. Which would be quite a result for Theresa May.