It’s not just the England football team doing better than everyone expected this week. The Prime Minister’s Brexit white paper, as launched with Cabinet Ministers on Friday of last week, appears to have taken the red lines Theresa May spelled out in her Lancaster House speech last year, and smudged them entirely. But with it she has also scored quite a few goals over her opponents.
For many months, May has struggled to reconcile the various difficulties created by her affirmation that we would leave the Single Market and Customs Union. On top of this, she’s had to try and win over the completely unreconciled extremes of her party. The Prime Minister has however come down on the side of a soft Brexit. The UK will still be tied to a Customs Arrangement with the EU. It looks potentially messy, and will not be ready for some time, so the backstop that keeps the Northern Ireland problem at bay will be in operation for a good number of years to come. The Government will also try and convince the EU to allow the UK to cherry pick aspects of the Single Market for goods. But consensus is that it is possibly a workable solution. 1-0 to Theresa.
Beyond providing clarity on the Government’s negotiating proposals, the Prime Minister’s approach has also delivered another benefit for her; they have sorted the wheat from the chaff in Cabinet, with the not-contents having conveniently removed themselves from the decision-making process. This should make subsequent agreement between Ministers much easier – and quicker. The Ministerial resignations, especially that of Boris Johnson, may prove to be own goals, as they mean the Prime Minister no longer has the sword of Damocles hanging over her every decision, wondering whether they will storm out in rage over the retention of some links to the EU. By calling their bluff with her proposals, she can now look forward to more cohesive Cabinet government. 2-0 to Theresa.
This is not to say that there aren’t important Brexit voices left at the Cabinet table – Michael Gove perhaps the most important of those – but those remaining are either happy with the detail of the Government’s position, or realistic about what a clean, hard Brexit means for business and Northern Ireland.
So why did May finally come down on the side of soft Brexit? Firstly – as Boris Johnson and David Davis have proven – because she can afford to lose a few hardline Brexiteers if she can retain those who believe that any Brexit is a win. This will likely be reflected in the wider Parliamentary party too. Secondly, while there may be 48 Conservative MPs who want rid of Theresa May, she would almost certainly retain the leadership in a vote of no confidence, further weakening the hard Brexit Tories of the European Research Group (ERG). And finally, May has taken the soft Brexit option because this is the approach that has the support of the majority of the House of Commons, reflecting the tight result in the 2016 referendum. With the public largely having switched off from the detail, it’s not clear Leavers would feel betrayed by this form of Brexit, and it will likely appeal to Remainers as well. Perhaps the Prime Minister has succeeded in bringing the country together. 3-0 to Theresa.
In the end, the PM’s hard-nosed approach of locking her warring Ministers in a room and threatening them with taxis for one seems to have won out.
It took an age to get here, but it would appear the Government has arrived at a forced consensus, with a manageable number of casualties. Now all they have to do is convince the EU of their approach. Piece of cake.
What next for Britain’s Brexit?
Of course there’s no telling whether EU will reject this approach, but they’ve been noticeably quieter about the proposals than previous ones. In normal circumstances, the EU’s response has been that there will be no cherry picking, and that the four freedoms of the Single Market are indivisible.
There’s a chance negotiators on the other side of the Channel see May has given this her best shot.
They will also be concerned that, having seen May finally declare victory in the type of Brexit she wants to get through, a significant revision of those proposals by the EU would once again harden opinion in Parliament and lead to a situation in which the UK does go for a hard Brexit, or worse still (for the EU) see the Government collapse and risk the unknown of a Boris Johnson or Jeremy Corbyn administration. Neither are likely to provide the EU with a more appropriate arrangement post-Brexit than the one on offer from Theresa May.
And with the Chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee Graham Brady having confirmed that he does not yet have in his hand the 48 signatories required to trigger a vote of no-confidence, there’s a chance the Prime Minister has even called the bluff of the hardliners in the ERG. So, without having had to say it, Theresa May has had her ‘put up or shut up’ moment and come out the other side. 4-0 to Theresa.
That’s not to say there won’t be some malcontents who storm out of the Conservative Party, and there’s been plenty of bluster from some Tory MPs since the publication. Nigel Farage has been making noises about coming back to frontline politics as leader of UKIP, and there may be a couple of Tory MPs who fancy a rerun of 2014 when two of their lot defected. However, there’s reason to believe it won’t result in a repeat of the Conservatives’ worries that they were about to be outflanked by UKIP. First, Brexit is happening, meaning a lot of people who might ordinarily have turned to UKIP will be satisfied. Secondly, it would appear that the Government still plan to curb freedom of movement, a core rallying call for UKIP. And lastly, the MPs who left the Conservative Party in 2014 did so in order to soften the UKIP message and make Brexit more palatable to the public. If the hardliners defect, there’s unlikely to be a repeat of that.
Theresa May hasn’t been so rash as to avoid balancing her Cabinet again, even if there have been some concerns that the Great Offices of State are all filled by Remainers.
Sajid Javid at the Home Office has always been lukewarm at best about the EU, new Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has said he would now vote to leave, and the Prime Minister herself has been clear that her Government will deliver Brexit.
With the arrival at DExEU of Dominic Raab – an acolyte of Michael Gove and former Chief of Staff to David Davis – there remains a strong presence in the Cabinet for Leave, though of a different hue to that espoused by Boris Johnson and David Davis. As former Tory MP Douglas Carswell urged Leavers on Twitter: “take the win”; and this Cabinet’s Leavers appear ready to do just that. Rumours have swirled that there will be changes to the remit of DExEU, and it remains unlikely that the PM’s Brexit adviser Oliver Robbins will be stepping back from his role. Only time will tell whether Raab – put out by previous reshuffles that saw him left outside the Cabinet – proves to be useful in a post whose remit is about seeing through a Brexit that will happen in 8 months. Either way the reshuffle seems certain to solidify her place, with more power being given to her over the direction of Brexit.
So that’s 5-0 to Theresa in the course of one week. Brexit defined, a Government united, opposition curbed, a workable solution for the EU, and more control over the direction of her most important policy. The England football team could probably learn a thing or two from her.
Conservative Party vote of confidence procedure
If Graham Brady, Chair of the backbench 1922 Committee, receives the required 48 letters calling for Theresa May to go, he is required to start the process for a vote of confidence. While he has confirmed he is yet to receive that number, and Theresa May might well have sufficient support from MPs to remain in post, we set out below the due process the party would need to follow.
- Graham Brady, Chair of the 1922 Committee, receives 48 letters from Conservative MPs calling for a motion of confidence in the Prime Minister.
- When this number is exceeded he would call a confidence vote, perhaps as early as the next day. She needs a simple majority to win.
- If she wins she remains in place and cannot be challenged for another year.
- However if she loses she is excluded from standing in the leadership contest and an election for party leader begins.
- MPs seeking the leadership put their name forward and a number of voting rounds take place, with the MP with the fewest votes knocked out until only two remain.
- The two final candidates are put forward to a vote of the Conservative Party membership.
- This process takes around 3 months.
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