by Frank Schnittger
Thu Jul 5th, 2018 at 10:17:30 AM EST
Is there method to May's madness? From a Bloomberg Brexit email...
Prime Minister Theresa May is gradually dragging her deeply divided Cabinet toward her vision of Brexit - and it's a softer version than the one she originally promised.
Her delaying has irked counterparts in the European Union, who say their patience with the U.K. and its political drama is running out. But by moving slowly, and offering token political gifts to the Brexit-backers along the way, she has clung on to her position - in the face of resignation threats and leadership plots - and shifted the terms of the Brexit debate.
First the Brexiters objected to paying a financial settlement for the divorce. May agreed to do so, peppering the announcement over a few months, and her critics accepted it. Then they objected to a transition period that would keep Britain bound to EU rules after Brexit day. May agreed to one, and they acquiesced.
Then she opened the door to indirect jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice - an institution loathed by euroskeptics as a symbol of lost sovereignty - and they kept quiet. Brexit Secretary David Davis threatened to resign over a plan for the Irish border, but stepped back from the brink after winning a concession from May that is unlikely to survive negotiations with Brussels. (Davis is the one making the most noise in the run-up to the crunch Cabinet meeting on Friday, too.)
Now May is proposing to keep the U.K. aligned with EU rules for trade in goods - an idea that's toxic for Brexit backers because it could reduce the scope for striking new commercial deals around the world, which was a key part of the Brexit campaign's narrative. Michael Gove, a possible leadership candidate, is predicting that no one will resign.
The danger isn't over for May. She could still be ousted. But if she comes out of the crunch Cabinet meeting on Friday with an agreement, it will be something of a victory for a prime minister persistently vilified for her lack of authority.
Bloomberg might have added that the UK side started off believing they could negotiate a comprehensive free trade agreement as part of the Brexit negotiations, then meekly accepted that a Brexit agreement had to come first, before substantive free trade negotiations could even begin. Davis even thought he could negotiate with the EU over retaining the European Medicines agency in London... The EU decided unilaterally to move it to Amsterdam. The Irish border question was barely a blip on the horizon for most Brexiteers, to be solved by technological wizardry if they considered it at all. Now it is the central political issue to be resolved.
If you find the Bloomberg narrative credible, it paints a picture of politics as a gradual process of changing expectations. Of moving the Overton window if you will. A masterly example of the art of persuasion. May starts from a hard line Brexit position to establish her democratic credentials and credibility with the Brexiteers. She appoints many of them to key cabinet positions. Then she gradually moves the goals posts, a few inches at a time, and watches as no Brexiteer has the guts to quit.
In the process she of course tries the patience of almost everybody else. Several pro-EU ministers and senior diplomats and administrators resign or are swept aside reinforcing the Brexiteers sense of still being in control. In all this time there is hardly any engagement with the EU side of the negotiation at all. Some desultory and plainly absurd proposals are put on the table in Brussels, and summarily dismissed by EU negotiators. But they were never meant to be a realistic basis for a Brexit agreement. They were part of the process of changing expectations on the UK side.
The problem with this approach, and the above narrative, is that coming up with a coherent and unified negotiating position is only one of the initial parts of a negotiation process, and in this case it has taken almost all the time and oxygen in the room for the negotiations as a whole. The closer we get to Brexit day itself, the more the lack substantive progress on the negotiations as a whole will force the UK side into accepting EU opening negotiating positions almost wholesale if they are to get any kind of agreement at all. If there is one thing that May has not done, it is to change expectations on the EU side. On the contrary, EU attitudes have been hardening...
Indeed, things have not exactly been all quiet on the EU front. Merkel's authority has been gravely, If not terminally, damaged by the refugee crisis. Mutti may not be around to broker any final Brexit agreement, and may not have the authority to do so even if she survives. Italy has a new hard line nationalist government only waiting to give Brussels a black eye for its lack of support on the refugee issue. A whole range of hard-right central and eastern European countries are lining up to re-shape the EU's policies on refugees and much else. The irony is that they would have been natural allies for a Tory government fighting for immigration "reform" from within the EU.
For those who still believe in the EU vision, Brexit has been a god-send. It has divided Tory UK from its natural alliance with other reactionary forces in the EU.
The other problem with this narrative is that uniting her cabinet is only a small part of May's problem. She has yet to unite the Tory party behind her. At some point in this process she may stretch the Brexiteers or the Remainers in her party too far. As the shape of an overall Brexit deal becomes clear, some Remainers may recoil at how much worse it is than the status quo provided by full membership. Some Brexiteers like Rees-Mogg may finally find some back-bone and launch a leadership challenge.
And then there is the DUP. It hard for people outside N. Ireland to full grasp how reactionary and nineteenth century they are in their attitudes. We may all laugh at Rees-Mogg, but at least he can put an an articulate argument together, however grounded in laughable "facts". But the DUP have no one of any vision or intellectual capabilities whatsoever. If Dublin or Sinn Fein welcome a proposal, they are likely to suddenly come out against it, on the grounds that what the nationalists want is bound to be bad for unionism.
Even the hard-line Brexiteers in London, with many ideological affinities and personal friendships with DUP MPs care not a whit about the future of N. Ireland in or outside the UK. May can betray the DUP without alienating many in her party base. If that's what it takes to get a Brexit deal across the line, then that is what she will have to do. Will the DUP then really precipitate a general election that might bring Corbyn or a Conservative government not beholden to them to power? Where is the upside for them?
At best, the UK would then have not a second referendum on the terms of Brexit, but a second General election. And all the while the clock is ticking and the time to renegotiate a revised deal is melting away - regardless of who wins. The EU has moved on to new priorities and new problems. Brexit will have become yesterday's problem which was never going to be a "win win" in any case. Time to cut your losses. Even a future trade deal looks doubtful as Trump rides a coach-and-four through the architecture of international trade deals. The UK could not be leaving at a worse time - for the UK.
May's approach to the negotiations may well have won her some precious time to stay in the premiership. She may even have, as Bloomberg suggests, gained some domestic authority in the process. However it has done nothing to bolster her international stature or negotiating position or guarantee a happy ending. Most likely, it will result in an almighty mess, and her premiership will be remembered as a historic failure.