16th November 2018
With the Brexit Agreement recently announced, and Westminster politics in turmoil, Thomas Anelay, Account Director in Grayling’s London Public Affairs team, looks at the likely repercussions for the Prime Minister.
Westminster has once again descended into chaos. After weeks of waiting, on Wednesday Prime Minister Theresa May brought news to the world that an agreement had been reached on the terms of the UK’s exit from the European Union. What followed is a five hour Cabinet meeting during which many of her most senior Secretaries of State expressed grave reservations, a spate of resignations from Government – most notably her Brexit Secretary, Dominic Raab – a bruising yet eerily quiet defence of her plans in the Commons Chamber, and a wave of letters of no-confidence in the Prime Minister. Yet come Friday, she is still standing and her proposed deal remains the only one on the table.
Amidst all the sound and fury, there are two prevalent objections to the deal amongst MPs. The first is that the deal is worse than the UK’s existing relationship with the EU. This might seem surprising given that the majority of the deal merely provides for a status quo transition and a backstop (the latter of which is also relatively similar to the status quo). However, the complete lack of control that the UK will have over decision making made in Europe, but which will have effect in the UK, seems to have caught many MPs by surprise. “Vassal state” has become a much overused phrase in recent days – but there is a truth to it.
The second is that the deal will leave UK negotiators agreeing the future trade agreement with one hand tied behind their backs. By agreeing payments, providing for a one-off extension of the transition period, and including a Northern Irish backstop without an end date, the argument goes that there is no financial or time pressure on the EU to negotiate a trade deal with the UK. The deal does include a multitude of “good faith” clauses designed to signal commitment to the trade negotiations. However, there is a truth in the argument that this deal surrenders much of the UK’s negotiating leverage.
Close watchers of the negotiations on both sides of the channel will be unsurprised to see the contents of the withdrawal agreement. For months it has been clear that the UK will have no decision making power in the transition, that the Court of Justice of the European Union would continue to have a role in judicial oversight in the UK, that there would be a Northern Irish border, etc. However, seeing these provisions in black and white seems to have surprised many parliamentarians. Some will say this is naivety, but Theresa May and her team must also bear some responsibility. Her strategy throughout negotiations has been to keep her cards close to her chest and share the least possible information. She has not sufficiently rolled the pitch before putting her deal before Parliament.
With parliamentarians and the public unprepared for the contents of the deal, its unpopularity comes as no surprise. Six polls have already been published showing that the public are against it, whilst the prospects of May securing approval from MPs when the deal is finally subject to a “meaningful vote” in Parliament looks grim. May’s successes and strategic blunders during the negotiations will be disputed for years to come, but with a hung parliament divided between Brexiteers and Remainers, negotiating a deal to please everyone was always going to be a huge challenge. Whether a more acceptable deal could have been negotiated is another matter, and for that reason, whether the deal or Theresa May survives remains a live debate.
Friday has brought hours of relative calm. Politics is fundamentally about personalities, and with MPs back in their constituencies rather than cooped up in Westminster, some of the fuel has been taken out of the fire. Plotting can continue on the telephone, but emails and instant messages take time to compose and therefore demand reflection and prompt calm. Over the weekend, the Sunday papers and political shows will set much of the narrative for the week ahead. And then it will be Monday. Which is about all we know will definitely happen.
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