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.