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18.02.19

Chris Painter: May's failing Brexit project

Source: PSE Feb/March 2019

Chris Painter, professor emeritus at Birmingham City University, examines the reasons why prime minister Theresa May’s approach to Brexit has proved so problematic.

A premiership in context

There are fascinating parallels between the premierships of Gordon Brown and Theresa May: both entered 10 Downing Street lacking personal mandates from the wider electorate. Having spent 10 years accumulating a formidable reputation as chancellor in the process lauding city institutions, prime minister Brown confronted the most severe financial crisis of the post-1945 period (albeit providing international leadership thereafter to prevent the global economy from suffering full-scale depression reminiscent of the 1930s).

When May succeeded David Cameron as PM in the aftermath of the 2016 EU referendum, she too had a formidable reputation after six-years as head of another major department of state, the Home Office, only for that to subsequently unravel. Obliging policing to fully contribute to the austerity policies of the 2010 Cameron-Clegg coalition government, May maintained that falling crime rates (continuing a long-term trend) vindicated her stance. With a recent upsurge in violent offences, the current home secretary, Sajid Javid, acknowledged by contrast that the police service will struggle to cope with demands unless given more resources.

Another signature policy of May’s whilst home secretary was creating a ‘hostile environment’ for illegal immigrants, but which also ensnared people with legal entitlement to UK citizenship – something exposed by the Windrush scandal. This mindset framed her ‘red-line’ approach to Brexit as PM, with the 2016 EU referendum regarded first and foremost as a vote to end freedom of movement.

She was consequently associated with a high minimum income threshold for workers to enter Britain contained in the December 2018 post-Brexit immigration white paper, despite the conviction of some ministers that it will be difficult to sustain. There was also notable reluctance in that context to explicitly endorse the target, first adopted by the coalition Government back in 2010, of reducing future net migration to the tens of thousands – a commitment May remains reluctant to abandon.  

Strategic misjudgements

May’s Brexit strategy has been characterised by a series of missteps. The first miscalculation on becoming PM was to appease hardened Brexiteers, deploying vacuous slogans which pushed all the right buttons for that wing of the Conservative Party. This was despite only a marginal 52-48 referendum outcome in favour of leaving the EU. An approach appealing across that divide, thus healing divisions in the country, would have been more politically astute.

Yet, in a speech shortly before the referendum, May had stated it was in the national interest to stay as a member of the EU! It may well be that uncompromising support for Brexit was an insurance policy to cement her newly-acquired leadership, but it meant she was in thrall to a political faction whose economic libertarianism ran contrary to her own market intervention brand of conservatism.

The second serious misjudgement was triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty in March 2017 before working out a clear strategy for exit. In contrast, the EU displayed remarkable unity and consistency in upholding its framework negotiating guidelines. We may never know whether that was a premeditated precursor to May’s decision to call the snap June 2017 general election, which, despite initial promising polling, wiped out her parliamentary majority.

That misjudgement was compounded when, post-election, she soldiered as on as if little had politically changed, propped up by a confidence-and-supply arrangement with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). This alliance came back to haunt May because of the DUP’s intransigence over Brexit.

Procrastination as a governing style

Also notable were May’s tactics in avoiding the hard choices that Brexit inevitably entailed to contain widening divisions within the Conservative Party. Kicking the can down the road became an art form! It was not until the July 2018 Chequers plan that May’s detailed negotiating position was unveiled, over two years after the referendum had taken place. It immediately ran up against determination in Brussels that the UK would not simultaneously leave the EU and continue to enjoy many of the advantages of membership (the ‘cherry-picking’ syndrome).

May’s eventual November 2018 withdrawal agreement – and accompanying general political declaration on future relationships – was met with scepticism from either side of the Brexit divide. Far from ‘taking back control,’ there was a real risk under this deal that the UK’s sovereignty would be compromised in the foreseeable future, subject as it would be to EU rules without being a participant in decisions.

Ensuring no return of a hard border in Ireland was at the heart of this dilemma. Failure to conclude a third-party comprehensive treaty with the EU by the end of the planned transition period meant that either that phase would be extended, or a UK-wide customs arrangement apply with Northern Ireland held closer to the single market, pending any new technological solutions.

The UK could only extricate itself from such ties by mutual consent. Moreover, the terms potentially involved some technical breaches of May’s earlier ‘red lines.’ For example, the joint committee envisaged for managing these arrangements not only required independent arbitration where disputes arose, but referral to the European Court of Justice on matters of EU law.

Such was the unpopularity of the proposals that May deferred a parliamentary vote from December 2018 until January 2019. But no new substantive concessions were forthcoming from Brussels to alleviate May’s political difficulties. These were underlined by a vote of Conservative MPs on her leadership, over a third of whom withheld their confidence. Simultaneously, the tempo of no-deal contingency planning increased. If this was ever seriously contemplated, preparations should have started immediately on triggering Article 50 – a disruptive exit would be politically suicidal.

Meanwhile, May lost a foreign secretary and two Brexit secretaries. Part of the problem was her propensity to negotiate down a ‘tunnel,’ keeping everyone in the dark other than a small circle of confidantes. It was a tendency for which she had become infamous during her stint as home secretary.

Will she? Won’t she?

Delay proved of no avail. May’s deal was defeated on a scale that is unprecedented in modern parliamentary history. As with the calling of the 2017 general election, pulling the originally-planned parliamentary verdict on her Brexit deal at the last minute formed part of a recurring pattern of vowing not to do ‘X’ and then doing precisely that.

Despite May continuing to insist that the UK will be leaving the EU on 29 March, an extension to the Article 50 deadline now also looks a distinct possibility with the clock so run down. The prime minister may indeed find herself left with little alternative but to request it.

Yet, notwithstanding conceding eleventh hour cross-party consultations, there still seems little prospect of May uncharacteristically facilitating a Brexit strategy capable of commanding wider political support. Instead, she is likely to go round a similar circuit again by trying to salvage a tweaked version of her November deal.

Can the House of Commons therefore seize the initiative by at least laying down parameters for acceptable Brexit outcomes? Will the government disintegrate from within because of irreconcilable Cabinet differences? The scramble is certainly on to find a way out of this policy morass!

Top image: Dominic Lipinski via PA Wire/PA Image

 

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