Wednesday

22nd Nov 2017

Column / Brexit Briefing

May's call to compromise helps mask party disunity

  • May’s expected offer to opposition parties is yet another reminder of how spectacularly her election gamble backfired. (Photo: Council of the European Union)

One of the messages Britons sent on 8 June was that they didn’t want to give Theresa May a blank cheque on Brexit.

A survey published by Survation shortly after the election found that 55% believed that a coalition of all political parties would be best placed to negotiate Brexit. Only 32 percent wanted the Conservative party to go it alone.

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That message appears to have been heard. In a speech on Tuesday (11 July), May is expected to urge Labour and other opposition parties to “come forward with your own views and ideas” on what post-Brexit Britain should look like.

“No political party has the complete monopoly of wisdom,” May’s de facto deputy prime minister, Damian Green, said on Monday.

May’s unprecedented "call for consensus" comes in the week that the government publishes its repeal bill on Thursday, the first part in the process of reversing the 1972 European Communities Act that took Britain into the bloc.

This will be the start of a hugely complicated process of Brexit negotiation in Westminster. The repeal bill will transpose all EU law into a single consolidated UK law. Brexiteers had hoped that the bill would allow them to scrap swathes of EU law. Shorn of a Conservative majority, that looks unlikely. The government will have to compromise.

The first concession is likely to be over the status of Britain’s membership of the Euratom treaty, the little-known agreement on nuclear power.

According to the May government’s position that the UK cannot remain subject to rulings by the European Court of Justice, Brexit also means leaving Euratom, the regulator which covers the transportation of nuclear materials around Europe.

However, nine Conservative MPs are prepared to defy this government position, enough to deprive May of her majority. They also have allies from an unlikely source. ‘Those in government wanting to leave Euratom are morons,’ offered Vote Leave’s campaign director, Dominic Cummings.

A cross-party group on EU relations led by two arch-Remainers: Labour’s Chuka Umunna, often touted as a possible party leader, and Conservative former minister Anna Soubry will also be launched this week.

“We won’t accept MPs being treated as spectators in the Brexit process, when we should be on the pitch as active players representing our constituents,” said Umunna. He will hope to use the group to keep alive the flame of single market membership.

But the room for manoeuvre is limited for the moment. A la carte is only available to politicians who accept the line of both the Conservatives and Labour: that leaving the EU and the single market must be part of the menu.

Unity on these points allows both parties to paper over their internal divisions on Brexit. Ministers who, deep-down, support single market membership are still taking to the airwaves to propose a lengthy post-Article 50 transition period.

Labour, meanwhile, is also sticking to its pre-election stance. Jeremy Corbyn sacked three shadow ministers who were among 49 Labour MPs to vote in favour of an amendment demanding continued single market membership two weeks ago.

The dilemma for Corbyn, who is instinctively Eurosceptic, is that the surge in support for Labour on June 8 was, in large part, based on an unprecedented turnout by Remain supporting under 25s. University towns and constituencies which voted ‘Remain’ in 2016 produced large swings to Labour in June.

At the same time, Labour’s heartlands in the north of England were promised an end to freedom of movement, which means leaving the single market.

If the anti-Brexit coalition cannot yet explicitly challenge the referendum result, they can play the long game. The weakness of the May government and volatility of voters means that no option can be ruled out.

Vince Cable, who will become the next leader of Liberal Democrats, hinted at this on Sunday when he opined that he was “beginning to think Brexit may never happen". A future election in the next two years could yet provide a mandate for that.

Given how entrenched the political fault-lines are across Britain – on a range of social and economic issues besides Brexit – seeking some kind of cross-party coalition is a sensible act of self-preservation by Theresa May. For the Conservatives, regardless of whether they decide to replace May in the coming weeks, compromise is the only way of avoiding another election which they would probably lose.

But only a mortally wounded politician asks for support from their opponents. May’s offer is yet another reminder of how spectacularly her election gamble backfired.

Benjamin Fox, a former reporter for EUobserver, is a freelance writer.

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