This Friday, the Prime Minister delivered the finale in a series of speeches that have included contributions from David Davis and Boris Johnson, which been dubbed by the government ‘The Road to Brexit’. The Cabinet has stalled, diverted, and played for time with phrases like “ambitious managed divergence”, but finally Theresa May seems to have delivered a comprehensible vision for the future.
The speech represented a carefully measured truce between the two wings of the Conservative Party; a truce which had been hammered out over a Cabinet ‘away day’. The government is still pursuing a hard Brexit, with no reference to the customs union membership that Jeremy Corbyn backed earlier in the week; this fulfils the basic demands of the Brexiteers, including that crucial European Research Group (ERG) of 60 Tory MPs, a bloc whose support May must maintain in the event of a vote of confidence. On the other side, the speech indicated that the government would be pursuing the softest form of hard Brexit possible – it has accepted that there is not a rigid binary between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’, Brexit is better measured by a spectrum. May gave a substantial amount of detail, outlining a number of European agencies that her government seeks to remain part of, including medicine, chemical and aviation agencies and a close relationship with Euratom. However, despite promising that the UK would not be under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice post-Brexit, she also said that it would be necessary to defer to the ECJ in some legal cases, which is likely to raise some eyebrows.
May wanted to use this speech to throw some cold water over the whole soft/hard Brexit dilemma and wake both wings of her party up to the reality of the situation. Overall, the speech has been greeted with applause from both sides – a rare occurrence for the post-election Prime Minister. The ERG has claimed it is “very relaxed” about her proposals. Pro-Europe Tory rebels such as Sarah Wollaston have supported the speech as a source of party unity. The chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier also praised the “clarity” of May’s plan (although without himself clarifying if the plan was acceptable to the EU).
However, there has been some opposition – notably from Labour who, while no longer being able to claim that a bespoke deal is off the table, due to their own position, argued that the proposals would harm industry and mean increased uncertainty for workers. They were supported by the TUC. Labour has also criticised the lack of progress on the Northern Irish problem, which was a visibly gaping hole in May’s speech. As the piece of the puzzle with the highest political and moral stakes, the obvious lack of solutions might throw the entire agreement into jeopardy. There have also been a group of senior British MEPs who have claimed that May has not made enough concessions to the EU and that this level of ‘cherry-picking’ simply isn’t a feasible negotiating position. The EU’s view on this clarified stance will become obvious when the next round of negotiations begins very soon.
As a final point, it is worth noting that this truce May has so carefully negotiated with her own party may subtly favour the hard Brexit wing. The technicalities of the agreement will not be set in stone in a post-Brexit environment, as the UK will have legally left the jurisdiction of the EU. It is therefore possible that May has succeeded in getting the ERG and other hard Brexiteers on side by appealing to their electoral appetites for the near-future. It is very possible that a Brexiteer successor to May, whether that be Davis, Johnson or Rees-Mogg, could re-align the details of the agreement post-Brexit and implement a more rigid ideological policy. All of this is futurology, but one thing is clear: this Tory truce is very, very temporary.
Jeremy Corbyn’s speech in Coventry this Monday, confirming Labour’s support of a customs union with the EU, has been billed a game-changer, and it would have been if the content of the speech hadn’t been slowly dripped out to the press in recent days. Keir Starmer, the Labour lawyer shadowing David Davis’ unenviable job, had virtually confirmed it (with a knowing smile) on last week’s Andrew Marr Show. Even so, as Corbyn himself insisted throughout his speech, this latest ‘development’ was only a reaffirmation of the Labour Party’s crystal-clear, unambiguous view on Brexit that had been unanimously established after the publication of Labour’s 2017 election manifesto. Or so Corbyn said, anyway. The fact that this announcement was treated with so much discussion did, however, indicate the deafening silence on Brexit that Labour has produced in recent months. For once, the public has been given a concrete fact that isn’t hidden behind several layers of jargon.
Membership of a customs union will greatly simplify two major problems facing the government. Firstly, the possibility of a hard border in Northern Ireland will be virtually eliminated, as a common trading area will satisfy the Irish demand for ‘frictionless trade’ (to which May has not so successfully aspired). Secondly, the economic benefits of a customs union will placate big business by eliminating the uncertainty of a tariff-riddled hard Brexit. However, the customs union is not a silver bullet - if Corbyn were in a hypothetical No.10, he would face opposition from both Brexiteers within his own party and in the DUP-led Northern Irish government, and from Remain-supporting Labour MPs who see this move as a precursor to support for single market membership in a few months’ time. Of course, there is no guarantee Corbyn would receive enough support from the Labour electorate for the plan, - he depends upon many voters who would class themselves as Hard Brexiters.
All of these problems notwithstanding, the decision on membership of a customs union (whether agreed 9 months or 9 days ago) has given Labour a spring in its step. On Wednesday, the unusual sight of a socialist proudly referencing support from the CBI (hardly a bastion of Marxism) at PMQs showed just how excited the Labour frontbench is about their new conviction.
Corbyn also had the never-before-possible privilege of taunting May about her lack of a plan - beyond the dubious “ambitious managed divergence“ without having his own argument thrown back at him. This renewed clarity is, regardless of your position, healthy for the debate; Labour is now able to effectively oppose the government’s Brexit position (or lack of) with the same vigour as they do on social policy.
The sceptical have pointed out that this is just political manoeuvring based on basic parliamentary arithmetic. A parliamentary vote on customs union membership is fast approaching, no matter how much May seeks to delay it. If Corbyn succeeds in whipping his own MPs into line and the crucial Tory rebels follow suit, May’s feeble, DUP-sponsored majority will be undermined. Many of the vultures circling around the Westminster bubble are arguing that such a blow to the government’s position should lead to May’s resignation. All of this is reliant on a number of ifs and buts: Corbyn would have to assert his authority over his own Eurosceptic MPs and the Tory rebels cannot be depended upon if a government defeat would mean opening the Pandora’s Box of a leadership election, or indeed the dreaded prospect of another general election. Additionally, there is no certainty that the EU will even accept Corbyn’s proposal of a bespoke customs arrangement. Regardless Labour has embraced pragmatism and, if May continues in her present ideological lockstep with her hard-line backbenchers, the crunch point that has seemed to slip further away in recent months may be a lot closer than May believes.
In this fascinating article Rhys Felton takes an in-depth look at how Emmanuel Macron's presidential election victory will impact Brexit negotiations. Macron was and is viewed by many as an outsider; his popular support is rooted in a social movement (rather than a party), and the liberal strand which underpins his political thought is a marked departure from previous president’s emphasis on ‘French exceptionalism’. Rhys argues we should view Macron’s appointment ominously as it will lead to uncomfortable parallels being drawn between Britain and France’s governance which will expose the flaws in Brexit. He also reflects upon Macron’s status as a ‘break’ from conventional French politics arguing that this will lead to a renewed commitment to the European project - Britain will no longer have a Eurosceptic neighbour. The article is well worth a read - France is Britain’s closest military ally and diplomatic and economic ties are also strong. Consequently, events in France have consequences for us in Britain even if these are rarely reflected upon.