From Here to Brexiternity: The Crisis in British Politics

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Prime Minister Theresa May addresses the House of Commons regarding the government's Brexit strategy

British politics in early March has been a tale of four prime ministers—two former ones, the present holder of the office, and one who would like to take over. Never in British history has there been such discordance between the past, present, and possibly future occupants of Downing Street.

Last Friday, Theresa May made her long awaited speech to define once and for all Britain’s relationship with Europe, with Ireland and her own relationship with an uncompromising anti-European isolationist right-wing. She said very little. Her speech was an mainly outreach to the English who voted “No” to Europe, not an effort to find common ground with a European Union that longs for some sign the U.K. might turn its back on the politics of close to amputational rupture.

May did not explain that the EU is what the Germans call a Rechtsgemeinschaft—a community of laws—and you cannot pick and chose the laws you obey. On the contrary, she offered proposals that offered the false hope that the U.K. could choose which bits of the EU it might conform with. But she rejected the core principles at the heart of European integrative cooperation. These are a common set of laws guaranteeing a single market and trade policy, enforceable worker and environmental rights, and the right of all EU citizens to live, work, or retire anywhere in Europe.

There about 300,000 British firms which trade outside the U.K., principally to the European Union’s open market of some 450 million middle-class consumers. That part of the British economy is deeply integrated into global capitalism, and has been lobbying hard to keep full access full access. May’s speech mentioned the auto, aviation, chemical, pharmaceutical, and TV industries, but only to suggest the EU should grant privileged access to just a handful of sectors in the British economy. This is wildly improbable.

She admitted for the first time that there would be a hit on the British economy as a whole, especially in the City of London which will lose its current unfettered access to the capital markets and financial services client base in the EU’s 27 member nations.

Gone was the triumphalism of 2016 and 2017 in which a “Global Britain” would shape a “Red, White, and Blue” Brexit to propel Britain into the front rank, de-shackled from the EU to be transformed into as a key partner for rising economic powers like China and India. Yet discounting subtle shifts in rhetoric, May has not deviated from her basic line since she became prime minister after the Brexit plebiscite vote in June 2016.

Britain technically leaves the EU on March 29, 2019. May has asked for and obtained a period of grace, a transition until January 2021. In this time, the U.K. having left the formal membership of the treaty will still maintain access to the EU’s Single Market, its Customs Union, and obey all its laws and rulings without having any say in their formulation.

Unkind critics have said this makes the U.K. a vassal state of Brussels but for most firms it will be much better to stay as an economic vassal than to have a full rupture with the European Union.

In essence May is buying a little time, kicking the can down the road. Many key decisions are being put off, to be discussed in this transition period.

But can they be decided? May insists she wants a new deep trading partnership with the EU she is committed to leaving. It’s like dumping your wife or husband but insisting that conjugal rights, hot meals, and overnight stays are on offer even as the partner walking out goes off in the hunt for wonderful new freedoms and pleasures having left the boring relationship behind.

May’s speech was greeted skeptically by both hard-line anti-European Tory MPs and by those who want Britain to remain in Europe. She is a woman who has spent her entire life in daily social communion with activists in the Tory Party. There are 70,000 Conservative Party members, and their average age is 71. Their favorite movies tend to be films like Dunkirk and Darkest Hour that show the brave, battling Brits of World War II glory taking on the Hun and avoiding the capitulationist Frogs.

These are the people who keep May in power. Her speech gently nudged them to a little more reality that Brexit will not bring in marvelous new sources of wealth and income for Britain, but she is not yet prepared to speak for the 27 million U.K. voters who did not vote for Brexit but only the 17.4 million who did. (The U.K. electorate in June 2016 stood at 44.5 million voters of whom 17.4 million voted to cut links with Europe.)

She has bought a little peace in her party, at the price of a continuing annoyance from European leaders who firmly that the U.K. could not have its cake and eat it. And she is no closer to a deal.

And it was not just Theresa May who made important speeches last week. On Wednesday and Thursday her two predecessors as prime minister, John Major and then Tony Blair, made big speeches on Europe.

Major lambasted Tory cheerleaders for Brexit like Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson as delusional. He attacked May’s negotiating red lines, as “not only grand folly ... also bad politics.” He added, “I believe that to risk losing our trade advantages with the colossal market on our doorstep is to inflict economic self-harm on the British people.”

It was an astonishing attack on his own party’s leadership. Major lost power in 1997 and for the last 20 years has obeyed the rule of retired prime ministers, which is not to dump your load on your successor’s doorstep.        

Now the silence is over and Britain sat back at the spectacle of Major and May openly at loggerheads. Major was denounced by a Tory MP as a “traitor” and the same accolade was bestowed on him by The Daily Mail, the cheerleader against Europe today just as it was a cheerleader for Mussolini and Hitler in the 1930s.        

Major was followed by his successor, Tony Blair, in Brussels. Blair also made a passionate speech attacking the delusional folly of Brexit in terms of the U.K. losing all automatic unfettered access to the EU’s Single Market and Customs Union.

This may sound technical but today from London about 85 percent of all the foreign-made TV shows—mainly American—that can be watched on TV channels in 28 EU member states are sold out of London. The reason is that once the U.K.’s TV standards regulator, called OffCom, says a foreign program meets British standards on violence, bad language, sex scenes then no other national TV regulator from Athens to Helsinki can block it.

That’s how the EU Single Market works. Now May says Britain must give up that membership of the Single Market. So a two billion-pound niche industry employing 10,000 people in London will move to operate out an EU capital—probably Amsterdam—to keep that market access.

Multiply that across any number of business sectors, especially financial-sector firms that have made the City into Europe’s Wall Street and you get some idea of the potential impact of Brexit.        

Blair’s attack also focused on the huge dangers to peace in Northern Ireland if what is called a hard border returns between the British controlled six counties in the north of Ireland and the rest of Ireland. If, as May insists, Britain leaves the EU Customs Union, it is axiomatic that there will be controls at customs checkpoints on the meat, milk, other agricultural goods, and any other products that are produced in the north and go into Ireland for processing.

Even inside NAFTA there are customs checks between the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. But having border controls in Ireland is toxic in political terms. Right now you can drive from the U.K. into the Republic of Ireland as one might from Maryland into Virginia. Re-introduce checkpoints because that is what English Tories and hard-line Ulster want, and once again, Ireland is partitioned.

The genius of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement was that it ended that physical separation between north and south without requiring anyone to surrender either British or Irish citizenship. Now in giving in to the English and Ulster hard-liners who want out of the EU Customs Union at any price May is sacrificing the Good Friday agreement on the altar of Brexit, as Blair put it.

Both former prime ministers are incandescent at May’s insouciance. In her speech she refused to face down her hard-line Orange Brexit faction who dismissed the Good Friday Agreement—actually a solemn treaty between London and Dublin with 140 different sections based on EU laws and norms—and instead said a working party might be set up to try and find a solution.

The man who would like to be prime minister, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, also made a Brexit speech, last Monday. It was a cautious move away from his position, which up to now has been identical to that of May. He said Labour could countenance Britain staying in the Customs Union if remodeled along lines he could accept. It was hailed as a big Labour turn away from Brexit—but in the same speech Corbyn said the U.K. had to leave the Single Market which still means a major rupture with Europe.

Corbyn has turned down the chance to be the champion of the 27 million who did not vote for Brexit. The Labour leader hopes that some kind of crisis—either British capitalism rejecting May or her own MPs turning on her—might provoke the fall of the government and a general election, which Labour could win. In the current fébrile state of British politics with Brexit as a kind of Ebola virus sucking the life juices out of parties and government anything is possible. All the same, there are 53 more Tory MPs than Labour MPs and Tory MPs don’t normally vote themselves out of power.

The reaction from both pro- and anti-EU wings of the Tory Party finding bits of May’s speech they could welcome is a temporary truce, but as in the past the Conservative will ditch every principle, make every necessary U-turn in order to maintain themselves in power.

In any event, there is no majority of MPs ready to vote a new general election and Labour will have to wait until 2022 probably to get a chance for power when Corbyn will be 73.

May insisted in her speech that under any form of Brexit, European Union citizens would lose their current automatic right to come to the U.K. and if they find work, live in Britain just as two million Brits use the same right to live or retire to warmed parts of Europe like the coasts of Spain, Greek islands, or the Dordogne in southwest France.

So her message to Europe was we don’t want you or need you but we will do business with you on our terms; and by the way, you can’t come here unless you go through an unpleasant immigration bureaucracy.

The reaction from Europe was firm. Manfred Weber, Angela Merkel’s closest political aide who heads the European People Party federation of all the main center-right and conservative parties in the European Parliament, said she was “burying her head in the sand.” Guy Verhofstadt, the former prime minister of Belgium who now heads the Liberal groups of MEPs and is the European Parliament’s negotiator on Brexit said all May had done was to demand a few more cherries on the cake she would like to both eat and still have.

The Czech Europe Minister pointed out that the kind of free trade agreement says she would like to conclude with the EU takes many years, more than a decade to negotiate and agree with all EU governments and parliament including regional ones.

So this is no breakthrough speech. All remains to be discussed and decided though on many key areas the decisions will be put off until end 2020 with many key areas being negotiated well into the next decade.

As Keynes pointed out in the long run we are all dead and MPs as yet unborn will be debating Brexit long into the 21st century.

Certainly there is no major trade agreement in the world that has taken much under a decade to negotiate and conclude. So after May’s speech, the endless years of Brexit haggling and internal U.K. quarrels continue. It is from here to Brexiternity. 

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