Monday

1st Mar 2021

Column / Brexit Briefing

Coalition, chaos and lame-ducks

  • Theresa May will survive long enough to start talks with Michel Barnier and co next week. But the chances of her premiership surviving until the official closing of the Article 50 window in March 2019 are extremely remote. (Photo: Number 10 - Flickr)

Having put herself at the mercy of her wrathful party: “I got us into this mess and I’m going to get us out of it,” the prime minister told Tory MPs during Monday’s meeting of backbench Conservatives, Theresa May will survive long enough to start talks with Michel Barnier and co next week.

But the chances of her premiership surviving until the official closing of the Article 50 window in March 2019 are extremely remote.

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The expected ‘confidence and supply’ coalition with the Democratic Unionists (DUP) will be fragile and expensive: decades spent haggling over the fine print of the Northern Irish peace process have made the DUP tough negotiators. They will expect more money for the province, and customs union membership to achieve a ‘soft border’ with the Republic of Ireland. A DUP deal will still only leave May with a majority of 4. She is now the definition of a lame-duck leader.

This weakness explains why May has kept her cabinet virtually unchanged, with the exception of bringing back Michael Gove – whom she brutally sacked last summer – as Environment minister. Lower down the ministerial food-chain, however, the Exiting the EU department (DexEU) has been overhauled. Of the four ministers in post last week, only the Secretary of State, David Davis, remains, hardly a vote of confidence in an already struggling and overburdened department.

The Tories would happily dispatch May tomorrow if there was a viable alternative candidate. But the most likely contenders are flawed. Home Secretary Amber Rudd only clung on to her Hastings constituency by 346 votes. And Boris Johnson is, well, Boris Johnson, and his role as 2016’s Brexit cheerleader makes him among the most divisive figures in British politics.

The situation in party and country is messy enough before you throw Brexit into the mix.

Softer Brexit

If George Osborne, who continues to revel in his new role as editor of the Evening Standard, is to be believed, May’s ministers are divided between the ‘Sensibles’ and the ‘Creationists’ when it comes to Brexit.

Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson, herself now touted as a future leader having delivered 12 new seats, Rudd and finance minister Philip Hammond have already met this week to discuss how to stop Johnson becoming the next leader and achieve a softer Brexit by remaining in the EU’s customs union.

For their part, the European Research Group (ERG) caucus of around 80 Leave-supporting MPs, claims to have secured assurances that government policy has not changed and that the government still intends to leave the single market and customs union. The leader of the ERG group, Steve Baker, has been appointed as a junior minister in DexEU.

Meanwhile, Brexiteer Tories are now using the line that 85% of voters backed Brexit-supporting parties, a creative interpretation of Labour’s fudged position on EU relations, in a bid to reassure ‘Leave’ voters (and themselves) that the referendum result will not be overturned.

If the mess in the Tory party and government machine makes it unclear what the Brexit negotiating position will be, and whether the government will have the votes to support it, having a moving target won’t make the negotiations any easier for May’s EU counterparts.

Amid the chaos and plotting, Tim Farron became the first party leader to resign on Wednesday (14 June). His Liberal Democrats had been the only UK party to oppose Brexit and demand another referendum on EU membership.

Meanwhile, though Labour’s deliberately vague stance on Brexit appears to have worked so far, it, too, is a work in progress. The party’s Brexit spokesman, Keir Starmer, has argued that the UK should explore whether it could stay in the single market while striking a deal with the EU on freedom of movement.

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Somehow the Conservatives have to avoid being forced into another election before the end of 2017. Labour picked up 30 seats last Thursday but, just as importantly, came within a few thousand votes of forming its own government.

Jeremy Corbyn’s party now only needs a 3.5 per cent swing to win a majority of its own. Labour is already hinting that it could oppose the Queen’s Speech in a bid to force a vote of no confidence and another election.

Indeed, both Conservative and Labour party headquarters are preparing for another poll this year, with local parties being encouraged to begin the process of selecting candidates.

While the Conservatives commit hari kari and begin their own ‘coalition of chaos’, Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn finds his former critics groveling for forgiveness. Corbyn has an evens chance of being Prime Minister inside the next 18 months. A week’s a long time in politics, eh?

Benjamin Fox, a former reporter for EUobserver, is a consultant with Sovereign Strategy, a London-based PR firm, and a freelance writer.

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