Theresa May tries to white paper over the Brexit cracks

12th July, 2018 10:25 am

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As if the nation’s hopes and dreams hadn’t been shattered enough in the last 24 hours (I don’t know if you’ve heard, but football got lost on the way home), the government’s Brexit white paper is due to be published today. Kick us while we’re down, why don’t you?

‘The Future Relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union’, to be released before midday, will fill in the details not provided last week by the Chequers agreement. No10 is adamant that they won’t shift on it, so no changes are anticipated – after all, it’s taken months and two cabinet resignations to reach this Frankenstein’s monster of a proposal. But it isn’t going down well with either Labour (despite the weird cross-party briefing by David Lidington earlier this week, which it seems most Labour MPs attended ‘for the lols’) or Brexiteer Tories. The airwaves are set to be filled with critics from every party.

Though not willing to sell the deal on telly, Theresa May has penned an op-ed in The Sun today in which she claims her Brexit proposal would allow the UK to sign trade deals, escape the European Court and end free movement. But the Conservative Party’s ultra right-libertarians aren’t convinced: “why would the U.S. accept our regulatory alignment with the EU?”, they ask. (Whether Boris Johnson meets Donald Trump in person is still to be decided, as it’s thought his team are concerned about the optics, but a phone call is firmly on the cards.)

The Trade Bill is expected to arrive in the Commons next week, and amendments will be laid down by both the official opposition and Jacob Rees-Mogg’s European Research Group. There is little chance any will pass, but as The Times’ Sam Coates writes, this is more about a “show of numerical strength”. As ever, Brexit – and by extension May’s ability to cling on as PM – hangs on parliamentary arithmetic. The key question is whether the ERG’s ‘ultras’ opt to vote with the government at all, and on that they haven’t yet decided.

In the meantime, further embarrassing resignations are planned. As with the Trade Bill amendments, the ERG know that daily resignations of junior ministers won’t bring down the government – rather they are designed to worry No10 and chip away at the PM’s confidence. Ultimately, the Brexiteer Tories will make the PM’s life difficult but they have few allies on the opposition benches in terms of the means. Both the rebels and Labour want May out, but their preferred paths differ: the former want a ‘no deal’ Brexit, the latter doesn’t.

One concern being quietly raised is that No10 and the refreshed cabinet is moving closer to Labour’s Brexit position. The Chequers agreement doesn’t pass Keir Starmer’s six tests, Labour MPs point out, so we won’t be voting for the government’s deal in the autumn. There is a lot of good faith towards the shadow Brexit team; one MP actually described Keir Starmer to me as a “genius” earlier this week. But what if the PM manages to bring most of the Tories with her and the deal detailed today softens further during EU negotiations? Could we see the largest chunks of the Labour Party and the Conservative Party come together behind a ‘soft’ Brexit and fight rebels from either side?

MPs report that Leaver constituents are less angry now, and it’s the Remainers who are furious. (Likely because at this point many Leavers have tuned out of the media’s blow-by-blow accounts of Brexit debates, and understandably so.) However, if the vote to leave the EU was a middle finger to our political elite, even the impression that Labour supports May’s Brexit vision could damage British democratic faith in the long term. Some say that for those reasons, there must be clear red water between Labour and Theresa May on Brexit, which means voting down the deal. We’re looking down the barrel of a no deal Brexit, and therefore constitutional crisis.

Sienna @siennamarla

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