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Analysis

10 times May chose to waste time and not get on with Brexit

by Luke Lythgoe | 12.02.2019

Theresa May claims she wanted Brexit “sorted before Christmas” and has blamed other MPs for dragging out the uncertainty. But again and again the prime minister has failed to take action on Brexit. Her prefered strategy is to run down the clock, hoping that fear of a looming no-deal Brexit will give her a better hand. Meanwhile the country suffers, as I wrote for InFacts last week.

Below is a comprehensive catalogue of can kicking, from the triggering of Article 50 back in March 2017 right up to now.

In the beginning…

Having triggered Article 50 too hastily without a plan, May almost immediately called an election – hoping for a supermajority to help her ram through the hardest Brexit possible. Seven wasted weeks of robotic campaigning handed her a hung parliament. May’s strategy had to change, and with it yet more time wasting.

‘Magical thinking’ on trade

May knew the hard and soft Brexiters in her Cabinet were bitterly divided on what our future trade relationship with the EU should look like. It’s hardly surprising that much of her dithering has been on customs arrangements. It started with a paper outlining two options in August 2017. InFacts called them both “magical thinking” at the time. The row was still raging months later, with no decisions made. Cabinet talks on our future relationship didn’t even begin until mid December 2017.

Transition indecision

May spent months insisting a full trade deal could be done with the EU in the two years provided by Article 50. In September 2017, she finally accepted a “transition” period to negotiate a trade deal would be needed – although she called it an “implementation” period. It then took almost half a year of stubbornness and u-turns to sign off the terms of the transition period in March 2018.

Divide and dither

In May last year, the prime minister split her Brexit sub-committee into two sub-sub-committees and made them plot out two different future trading relationships: a “customs partnership” and Brexiters’ preferred “Max Fac” option. But the delay did not keep her Cabinet together. When she finally revealed her “Chequers” white paper in July, Boris Johnson and David Davis resigned anyway.

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Chequers is dead, long live Chequers?

The EU had dismissed Chequers by the end of the month. But May ploughed on with her hopeless proposal until a bruising summit in Salzburg in September. A protracted series of climb downs and compromises followed – particularly on the Irish border “backstop”. A deal was finally published and agreed with the EU on November 25.

Pulling the first ‘meaningful vote’

With a deal finally signed, but its unpopularity clear to all, the time wasting stepped up a gear. After three days of parliamentary debate on the government’s deal, May pulled the vote on December 10, a day before it was due to be held. Instead of admitting defeat, she promised to discuss with EU leaders “the clear concerns that this House has expressed” over the backstop arrangements to keep the Irish border open.

Can kicked into new year

The prime minister wasted an entire month. All she had to show at the end of it were letters from EU leaders saying the backstop would “only apply temporarily”, but no time limit or anything legally binding. This resulted in a historic government defeat by 230 votes on January 15.

Plan B: just Plan A again

In a bid to stop May running down the clock, MPs had already passed an amendment which forced the government to announce its “Plan B” within three parliamentary “sitting” days once the deal was defeated. On January 21 May announced her new strategy: “talking further to colleagues” and the DUP about the backstop, then taking the conclusions from those talks “back to the EU”.

Backing Brady

Then on January 29, May tried to legitimise her time-wasting tactics by backing an amendment tabled by Tory Brexiter Graham Brady which insisted “alternative arrangements” to the backstop be sought. May’s latest talks in Brussels ended with Jean-Claude Juncker firmly repeating that the Withdrawal Agreement, which contains the backstop, is not open for renegotiation. She bought off opposition to her can-kicking in Parliament and Cabinet by saying she would come back by Valentine’s Day.

Still wasting time

Today the prime minister told MPs she needed “some time” to complete talks with Brussels. She has now promised that they will get another vote no later than February 27. But if she hasn’t got a new deal by then – or has one and MPs reject it again – that won’t be the end of the process.

A couple of weeks dither and delay here and there may not sound a lot. But we now only have just over six weeks left before we are supposed to quit the EU. It’s impossible for business to plan. The economy is suffering and public anxiety is growing. And if this time-wasting means we crash out of the EU and into the abyss, there will be all hell to pay.

Edited by Hugo Dixon

2 Responses to “10 times May chose to waste time and not get on with Brexit”

  • There will be hell to pay? Whom by? The way the British (or should I say English) electorate sits waiting for something to happen makes me think that the hard brexiteers are rubbing their hands. And that no one is going to do anything nasty to them. As a foreign national I have lost my confidence in the power of British democracy, to be honest.