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Image: Jonathan Boeke

Believe it or not, EU leaders were attempting to bolster Theresa May’s position ahead of what is likely to be an unpleasant Tory conference ten days from now.    EU negotiator Michel Barnier had unexpectedly indicated that the so-called “Chequers proposal” provided the basis for a future Brexit deal.  Crucially, however, Barnier was not signing up to May’s position.  The UK government would still have to make concessions to arrive at an acceptable agreement with the EU27.  As Katya Adler at the BBC puts it:

“Their Brexit aim for this summit was to go as far as they could with words and gestures to throw Theresa May a lifeline.  But their tokenistic effort was a misreading of Theresa May’s political position – especially ahead of what is likely to be a difficult annual conference with her own Conservative Party.

“The prime minister swiftly and bluntly rebuffed the Barnier Irish border suggestions – thereby misreading EU leaders right back.”

This is too simplistic a reading of what just happened.  A seasoned negotiator like Barnier does not make schoolboy errors (in the way used car salesmen like David Davis or Dominc Raab would) of this kind.  Barnier knew all too well that the Chequers position was the result of the desperate attempt to head off open warfare between pro-Brexit and pro-Remain factions of the Tory Party.  To ask for even the slightest concession from May was to ask her to get down off the fence and side against the pro-Brexit faction.

The reason Barnier chose to do this now?  Because last week’s attempted leadership coup proved to be a damp squib that left senior Brexiteers grovelling before the media spotlight claiming that the Chequers proposal was (at least for now) the only option on the table.

The broader problem for May is that the Chequers proposal will not pass a vote in Britain’s pro-Remain parliament.  So even if the EU27 could be persuaded to approve it, it would be voted down, creating an even bigger political crisis that could only be resolved by a general election and/or a second referendum.

The irony is that while both factions of the Tory Party would like a different leader, they are saddled with May as the lesser of evils – Brexiteers fearing a pro-Remain alternative and remain Tories fearing a Brexit hardliner.  So – as has been the case since 2015 – the Tories will throw the UK economy under the bus in order to maintain the fiction of party unity.

As I wrote last year, just as when an amateur plays the game of chess, the outcome is decided in the opening moves; so too was the outcome of the Tory Brexit.  Arguably, of course, the real error came at the very start, when Cameron included the referendum pledge in the 2015 manifesto for the sole reason of preventing Tory voters switching to UKIP.  That aside, however, Theresa May’s opening move – triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty before understanding what it meant – guaranteed defeat:

“[Giving evidence to MPs] Sir Ivan Rogers, the former UK permanent representative to the EU in Brussels [explained]:

‘I did say last autumn I would not agree unequivocally to invoke Article 50 unless you know how Article 50 is going to work because the moment you invoke Article 50, the 27 [other EU countries] dictate the rules of the game and they will set up the rules of the game in the way that most suits them.

‘My advice as a European negotiator was that that was a moment of key leverage and if you wanted to avoid being screwed on the negotiations in terms of the sequencing, you had to negotiate with the key European leaders and the key people at the top of the institutions and say: ‘I will invoke Article 50 but only under circumstances where I know exactly how it is going to operate and it’s got to operate like this otherwise this is not going work for me.’”

The complicating factor was that immediately after triggering Article 50, May chose to call a general election in the hope of bringing in (if the polls had been correct) an additional 50 Tory MPs; each of whom would owe their position to her.  This would have allowed her to face down both factions of the Tory Party and impose her own version of Brexit.  Unfortunately for her, she ran so inept a campaign that she turned a comfortable majority in Parliament into a minority that has to be propped up by an Ulster Unionist party that makes the extreme Brexiteers look like paragons of reason.  With the election lost and the Article 50 clock ticking down, May had handed the initiative to Barnier and the EU27.

This is a point missed by the few Tory Ministers prepared to comment publicly this morning.  In an interview with the BBC Radio4 Today programme, James Brokenshire said:

“The Chequers deal is a workable, credible deal to meet our ambitions.

“They [the EU] have said that it’s about the integrity of the single market and we believe the Chequers deal responds to that, and it’s for the EU to engage with what’s on the table.”

In negotiations such as those between employers and trades unions this would be an acceptable position.  This is because negotiations of that kind take place within the terms of what is known as a “status quo clause.”  That is, in the event of a failure to reach an agreement, the situation prior to the negotiations is restored.  This, however, would only be true for Brexit if the UK government had refused to trigger Article 50.  With Article 50 triggered, in contrast, the default position in the event that the UK and EU27 cannot agree is that the UK crashes out of the European Union with no arrangements in place to govern most of its trade; and with no infrastructure or skills in place to operate the borders and customs checks required by the World Trade Organisation.

In effect, Brokenshire is putting a gun to his temple and saying “if the EU27 refuse to offer concessions I will pull the trigger.”  Good luck with that.  And this, of course is why EU president Donald Tusk felt able to troll the Brexiteers, posting Instagram pictures of himself offering May a piece of cake “without the cherries.”

The message from the EU27 is plain enough.  They did not want Britain to leave, but will accept the democratic decision to do so.  They would like to have a deal to mitigate the likely disruption to the economy, but they are prepared to take the hit rather than undermine the key principles that underpin the EU single market.  They are prepared to listen to any UK proposal that can accommodate these principles, but it is not for them to initiate those proposals.  Contrary to Brokenshire’s stated position, that is, it is down to the UK and not the EU to make the necessary concessions if it wants a deal.

There is, in fact, no Brexit agreement that is acceptable to the Tory Party.  Nor would a change of leader make any difference.  In the unlikely event that they could navigate a reworking of the rejected Chequers proposal through a pro-remain Parliament, the EU27 can afford to simply ignore it.  Instead, the EU27 are likely to pursue an option recently floated by former LibDem leader and ardent Europhile Nick Clegg, that we can simply “stop the clock” on Article 50 – something that, according to Clegg, is common practice in formulating EU laws and treaties.  Given that SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has now repeated this option, we can expect it to be amplified by a largely pro-remain (or at least anti-hard Brexit) media in the coming months.

A likely outcome to this debacle is an increasing degree of panic as it becomes clear that neither the EU27 nor the UK Parliament will approve any Brexit agreement that would be acceptable to a fundamentally divided Tory Party.  Sooner or later the Tories – who will be held responsible for the mess by Leave and Remain voters alike – will be forced to go to the country (a second referendum is unlikely because it risks producing the same outcome – leave voters may blame the Tories rather than Brexit itself).  The (establishment) hope being that Corbyn’s Labour Party (which still includes lots of Blairite MPs) still lacks the electoral support to form a majority government and will be obliged to look to some combination of the SNP, LibDems, Greens and Plaid Cymru for support.   Only then will we learn what Michel Barnier has been discussing with Corbyn, Starmer and Sturgeon in the many informal meetings that they have held.

As you made it to the end…

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