Stuck between two Johnsons, PM struggles to quell Cabinet

by Luke Lythgoe | 12.11.2018

The misery that Theresa May’s Brexit plan will bring to this country is becoming acutely apparent to all. The prime minister’s proposals – which could yet see more concessions to the EU – are under fire from hardcore Brexiters and patriotic pro-Europeans alike.

The current state of play is perhaps best reflected in the tale of two Johnsons. First, the decision by moderate pro-European Jo Johnson to quit his role as transport minister on Friday, saying the prime minister was presenting a choice between “vassalage” and “chaos”, and that it would be a “democratic travesty” not to have a public vote on whatever outcome emerged. And then his bombastic brother Boris, desperate to grab back the limelight as a shouty Brexiter, calling for a Cabinet “mutiny” in today’s Telegraph.

But stuck between these two very different wings of her party, May’s inner team of cabinet ministers also seems in open revolt. An emergency Cabinet meeting to “approve the deal” pencilled in for today has been cancelled amidst ministerial opposition to May’s proposals. Brexiters Dominic Raab, Andrea Leadsom and Esther McVey are all the focus of speculation about who might quit next, alongside four moderate pro-European ministers, according to the Sunday Times. For her part, Leadsom denied the gossip yesterday saying she was “sticking in government” to work for a good deal, while also warning that the UK must not be “held against its will” indefinitely in an Irish border “backstop” arrangement.

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But the latest template for the UK-EU withdrawal agreement, revealed in a note leaked to BuzzFeed, won’t please anyone. The current three-part model for an Irish “backstop” – the insurance policy to make sure Northern Ireland’s frontier with the Republic remains open after Brexit – breaks down as follows.

  1. We reach a comprehensive deal with the EU during the transition period which keeps the Irish border open. The problem: this seems unrealistic, especially within the short 21-month transition timeframe.
  2. The transition period is extended. But this would leave us following EU rules without a say for many years to come. Neither Brexiters nor patriotic pro-Europeans want this.
  3. The backstop is activated when transition ends, and the entire UK enters a customs union with the EU and follows the EU’s social, environmental, tax and state aid rules. That means more unpalatable rule-taking. But a customs union also doesn’t fully solve the Irish border, and Northern Ireland would have to follow extra single market rules. That means creating some form of regulatory border in the Irish Sea – a “blood-red” line for the DUP who prop up May’s minority government.

On top of that, EU officials are pushing for EU boats to have continued access to UK fishing waters throughout the transition. Scottish Conservative MPs in coastal constituencies won’t support that. Nor will they like the regulatory split with Northern Ireland, because it increases the chances of a new Scottish independence bid.

In short, May is in a mess. Thankfully more and more MPs and other key figures are coming round to Jo Johnson’s way of thinking, that the most democratic solution is to have a People’s Vote now that we know what Brexit will actually entail.

Edited by Quentin Peel