Wednesday, 11 July 2018

A Conservative Cabinet of Chaos

The Cabinet meeting at Chequers
Source: The Independent

The Chequers agreement supposedly hailed the end to bitterly deep cabinet divisions and provided a clearer direction to Britain's negotiating stance with the EU. Such a momentous moment did not last long as the Secretary of State for Leaving the EU, David Davis, and the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, resigned from Theresa May's cabinet. Both Davis and Johnson argued that the government's proposals undermined parliamentary sovereignty where the UK would still be under the control of the EU. The government continues to be plagued with instability with a leadership struggle seemingly imminent. The resignations of two prominent Brexiteers has exposed the inability of Theresa May to deliver a Brexit deal which appeases the opposing factions of her divided party.

It is hard to ignore that much of this chaos is a result of May's lack of direction to leaving the European Union. Theresa May entered Downing Street seemingly supportive of a hard-Brexit; she sought the affection of Leave voters promising that 'Brexit means Brexit', critiqued the House of Lords and attempted to by-pass the House of Commons. May seemed to be fulfilling the Leavers' wildest dreams with Nigel Farage tweeting, following the Lancaster House speech, that May was using UKIP's "phrases and words" as she promised to leave the single market and customs union. Fervent Leave supporters and lifelong critics of the European Union instilled much faith in the new 'Iron Lady' as the message from government seemed to anticipate great divergence between the UK and the EU.

Theresa May delivering the Lancaster House Speech
Source: TIME

Therefore, it is unsurprising that May's Chequers agreement seems to fall-short of the dreams of the cabal of Eurosceptics. It seems that the Prime Minister has recognised, following the 2017 General Election, that a hard-Brexit is not popular amongst the public or, more importantly, realistically achievable. Slowly but surely, the Prime Minister has been drawn into compromising with the EU, almost as if it slowly dawned on her that the UK cannot 'have its cake and eat it'. The Chequers deal reflects the government's softer approach to Brexit, although still not considering membership of the customs union or single market. It is also important to remember that the government will have to negotiate this settlement with the EU which, according to David Davis, may lead to further compromises and an even softer form of Brexit.

By insisting on a 'common rulebook' for goods, including agricultural products, the deal implies that the UK will be a rule-taker rather than a rule-maker. This will ensure that the standards of our products  are upheld but has also led David Davis to claim that the return of parliamentary sovereignty is "illusory". It has also led Boris Johnson to proclaim that the "Brexit dream is dying"; Johnson's resignation letter was a display of opportunism and yet another attempt to advance his political career. Despite Johnson's own political ambitions, it is clear that the Brexiteers seek amendments to the Chequer's deal, defaming it as 'Brexit only in name'; thus May must rely on 'socialist votes' in the Labour Party in order to achieve parliamentary approval on this new advancement.

Boris Johnson signing his resignation letter
Source: The Guardian

Personally, I supported Remain and want the softest form of Brexit as realistically possible. The problem, however, is that the Chequers deal fails to appeal to hard-line Brexiteers or those who seek a soft-Brexit. MPs such as Anna Soubry, Chuka Umunna and David Lammy recognise that the deal does not solve the border issue between Ireland and Northern Ireland and has not acknowledged the UK's services sector, which accounts for 80% of the value created by the economy. Furthermore, the complete rejection of membership of the customs union and single market further alienates Remainers.

The Prime Minister is in a difficult position; it is highly unlikely that any form of Brexit will appeal to both factions of her party. All of the Prime Minister's problems stem from the inability of the Leave campaign to provide the electorate with a blueprint or basic outline to how Britain will leave the EU. The Leave campaign did not address the Ireland border or the economic realities which the UK face being outside the single market and customs union. Therefore, politicians have been left to interpret the vote on the 23rd of June and have reached different conclusions. Some politicians, including Anna Soubry, believe that the vote to Leave does not necessarily suggest Britain should relinquish membership of the single market. Others, including Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees Mogg, argue that remaining in the common market is "betraying the will of the British people".

Boris Johnson during the EU Referendum campaign
Source: City AM
The febrile atmosphere in Parliament and the growing fragility of Theresa May's government suggests that there is more instability to come - this may manifest in more resignations or a possible leadership challenge. However, it is certain that the Brexit crisis is deepening and is becoming increasingly difficult to resolve. With the second phase of Brexit negotiations due to culminate in October, and as the 29th March 2019 reckons, it is difficult to predict how long the government will survive. This latest episode in the Brexit saga has exposed the weakness of Theresa May's government and the immense difficulty in creating a Brexit deal which will appease the cabinet and Parliament.

As the chaos of Brexit continues to dominate the political agenda and the Tory party remains divided, can Theresa May hang on any longer?


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