The Conservative MP, Anna Soubry, stunned the Commons and the media earlier this week by asking rhetorically whether it is the Prime Minister or her fellow backbencher Jacob Rees-Mogg who “runs the country” when it comes to Brexit. The events of the past ten days, and particularly the Prime Minister’s acceptance of four wrecking amendments to the Brexit Customs Bill on Monday, give a clear answer to Anna Soubry’s question. Mrs May does not and cannot set her own course in the Brexit negotiations. Jacob Rees-Mogg and those who think like him have a veto on all her European policies, a veto they are now every day more confident and determined in applying. This veto is guaranteed by the dominance of radical Euroscepticism within Mrs May’s Conservative Party, a dominance that Westminster-based commentators often overlook.
It is extraordinary to recall that some commentators initially regarded the outcome of the Chequers meeting on 13th July as a triumph for the Prime Minister. At the end of that meeting Mrs May expressed the pious hope that it would put an end to Cabinet divisions on Europe and mark the restitution of collective Cabinet responsibility. The following days saw the resignation of precisely those Ministers whose task it would have been to implement the new European policy: David Davis, Steve Baker and Boris Johnson. In normal political times and on any other topic, these dramatic events would have been regarded as a probably mortal humiliation of a sitting Prime Minister. Instead, in the days immediately after these resignations, Mrs May and her supporters had some success in selling to the more gullible among commentators the nonsensical claim that this Cabinet crisis had strengthened the Prime Minister, both domestically and internationally. Such claims always rested on several highly questionable assumptions about the Conservative Party and Mrs May’s situation within it. Their unsustainability has been vividly demonstrated over the past week.
Notable among these doubtful assumptions was the view that the events of the past week marked a fundamental break between Mrs May and the most radical Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party. It is true that the adopted Chequers text is one that would never have commanded the support of that wing. The chairman of the European Research Group (ERG) Jacob Rees-Mogg immediately attacked the text and put down Parliamentary amendments to strike out some of its provisions. A number of his supporters have gone so far as to call for Mrs May’s replacement as Conservative leader. But Jacob Rees-Mogg has been at pains to stress that he is not seeking to destroy Mrs May’s premiership, but rather to reverse by a process of internal opposition those elements of the Chequers agreement which he finds unacceptable. He has the best possible prospects of doing so. It has been a recurrent mistake of outside commentators to underestimate the will and capacity of the ERG and its allies. While they represent only a minority of the Conservative Parliamentary Party, their attitudes are widely, indeed almost universally supported within the Conservative Party as a whole.
Eurosceptic radicals rule
It is her awareness of this fact that led Mrs May to tread carefully over the past week, even before her culminating humiliation in accepting all four of the ERG’s wrecking amendments on 16th July. The adopted Chequers text was initially presented and defended by her (disingenuously) in terms that sought to meet the ERG’s preoccupations with the role of the ECJ, freedom of movement and trade arrangements with third parties after Brexit. She replaced David Davis as Brexit Secretary with the equally uncompromising Dominic Raab, whose appointment of itself should have sufficed to scotch claims that Mrs May had broken decisively with radical Conservative Euroscepticism. She was prepared to risk ridicule in the Commons by echoing Eurosceptic claims that slow progress in the Brexit negotiations is the fault of the EU’s intransigence rather than British divisions.
Far from opening a door to further movement in the direction of the EU later in the Brexit negotiations, Mrs May’s rhetorical presentation of the Chequers text has always come over as ultimative and provocative, framed much more in terms of justified demands than of initial proposals. The adoption of the Chequers text cost Mrs May two senior Cabinet ministers. It is fanciful to imagine that she will be able to maintain the support of her Party for the further necessary “concessions” that will be needed to make a Withdrawal Agreement capable of negotiation with the remaining EU members.
Last week was by no means the first time that otherwise serious commentators have claimed to discern an important movement of the Conservative Party or at least its leadership away from radical Euroscepticism. These recurrent claims have always sooner or later shown themselves to be vacuous. They stem essentially from ignorance of the Party outside Westminster and an excessive preoccupation with the House of Commons as the exclusive focus of national political activity. It is an error of categorisation to regard the Conservative Party as one capable of being cajoled or bullied into pragmatism on European questions by a self-confident leadership. David Cameron experienced in 2016 great difficulty in persuading an unconvincing majority of his MPs to support him during the referendum. Radical Euroscepticism has taken a firmer grip on the Party since.
Even if a small majority of MPs could still be found who are appalled by the prospect of Brexit, their capacity to make their preferences politically effective is pared back to nothing by the overwhelming Euroscepticism of local Conservative Associations, a Euroscepticism fuelled and maintained by the newspapers that party members outside Westminster largely read. Deselection is an ever-present threat for Conservative MPs demonstrating insufficient anti-European zeal. It has often been remarked that the Conservative civil war on Europe is one that proceeds asymmetrically, with the Eurosceptic wing considerably more ruthless, determined and committed than their opponents. The confidence that they are representing the views of most of their Party is unquestionably a substantial motivating factor for the ERG and its allies. As the Party has shrunk and become more homogeneous in its social and demographic composition this process of mutual emotional reinforcement around anti-Europeanism has become even stronger.
Party of business?
Much amused comment has been generated by the growing gap of sympathy between today’s Conservative Party and its traditional supporters in business and finance. This estrangement from these traditional supporters largely arises from the uncompromising and incoherent approach of the government to the Brexit negotiations. But once again it would be an error to imagine that this estrangement will lead to a reworking of Conservative European policy. The abandonment of the services sector in the White Paper has been welcomed by many Conservative apologists as proof positive that the Party shares the hostility of some among its voters to over-paid and reckless bankers. It is no longer true that the Conservative Party is the party of business or prudent economic management. The glue which holds today’s Conservative Party together is radical Euroscepticism. Hatred and contempt for the European Union is not simply one policy among many making up the Conservative political offer. It is the heart and essence of the Conservative proposition.
The completeness of Mrs May’s surrender to the power of the ERG earlier this week provided a useful corrective and clarification for those still hoping that the Party was capable of negotiating a pragmatic Withdrawal Agreement with the EU. No such prospect exists under a Conservative government led by Mrs May or anybody else. The default assumption must be that there will be no Withdrawal Agreement before March 2019 and that as a result the United Kingdom will leave the European Union on 29th March 2019, with no transitional (standstill) agreement to cushion the blow of such an abrupt Brexit. This outcome will be unwelcome and damaging for the EU. It will, however, be the worst possible economic outcome for the UK.
Brutal Brexit ahead
There is a dawning realisation among British commentators and economic actors that a brutal and chaotic Brexit in March is becoming more likely. Businesses and financial operators in particular are drawing up and publicising plans based on this apocalyptic hypothesis. But even now there is lurking in the minds of many the hope and belief that the Commons, which has a clear majority against a catastrophic Brexit, will in some unspecified way be able and willing to avert disaster. At least two considerations speak against this reassuring expectation: the growing proximity of the March 2019 deadline, triggering automatic Brexit; and the overall configuration of the House of Commons arising from the General Election of 2017. It is widely understood that the provisions of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty create a perverse incentive for the ERG simply to block any realistic negotiating proposals from the British government to its European partners, while clockwatching for the March 2019 deadline to bring about the hardest possible Brexit automatically. Less widely understood is the systemic difficulty for a highly divided House to assert control over the Brexit process in the likely event of “no deal.” These divisions exist within and between the Conservative and Labour Parties on European policy.
If the Conservative Parliamentary Party is noticeably less Eurosceptic than the Conservative Party as a whole, the Labour Party is confronted with another important fissure in its ranks, whereby its Parliamentary leadership is considerably more Eurosceptic than most Labour MPs, most Labour members and most Labour voters. Jeremy Corbyn and his closest advisers would see definite advantages to Brexit, both for their future economic management of the UK if Labour were elected to power and as an intractable political and economic problem which might destroy for ever the Conservative Party. There will be powerful Labour voices arguing against any cross-party activity to save the Conservative Party from the consequences of its Brexit folly. In parallel, even among anti-Brexit Conservatives, there will be considerable reluctance to work together against Brexit with what they see as a now extremist Labour Party, led by a coterie widely regarded as Marxist even by mainstream Conservatives.
Brexit is an issue which might have been expected to encourage moves beyond the traditional tribalism of British politics. It may, however, be an issue rendered yet more intractable by the continuing existence of this tribalism. Without a radical and rapid reordering of the present party political landscape in the UK, it is very difficult to see how Parliament can in any meaningful sense “take back control” of the Brexit project if it seems to be careering towards national disaster. This reordering is entirely possible, but certainly cannot be taken for granted. We are approaching the time when many individuals will have to take difficult and painful decisions about their loyalties to country, party and values. It would be foolish to be over-optimistic, but there is no reason for despair either. Repeatedly in history the British party landscape has reinvented itself in a way that seemed unlikely at the time, until in retrospect it seemed inevitable. The British political scene may look very different by the end of the year. If it does not, the United Kingdom may come to look very different in the first half of 2019.
Originally published by the Federal Trust. Republished with permission
Brendan Donnelly is Director of the Federal Trust, the think tank based in London. He was Member of the European Parliament for Sussex South and Crawley from 1994 to 1999. He previously worked for Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the European Commission and the European Parliament.