Where does Theresa May go now?

by Hugo Dixon | 21.09.2018

Following the rejection of her Chequers proposals in Salzburg, Theresa May has only dreadful options – unless, that is, she becomes a late convert to a People’s Vote.

The prime minister’s current plan is to press on forlornly with her unloved scheme. That was her response today after the EU rejected her bureaucratic plan for customs and told her that only staying in bits of the single market “will not work, not least because it is undermining the single market”.

But pressing on regardless is hopeless, as even May herself admits the talks are at an “impasse”. The EU says it won’t even call a previously expected summit in November to wrap up a deal unless there are the outlines of one by the planned October summit. If the prime minister continues to insist it is Chequers or bust, she will be heading for the abyss. Even if she wanted that – and she almost certainly doesn’t – Parliament would probably find a way to stop her doing anything so crazy.

Another option would be for May to offer the EU more concessions. While railing against the bloc’s plans to keep the Irish border open today, she also confirmed she was going to do just that. The idea seems to be to say no to customs checks in the Irish Sea but yes to regulatory checks – whatever that means.

The snag is that such a convoluted scheme is unlikely to please anybody. The EU would say it wouldn’t go far enough; the DUP, which props up May’s government, would freak out because it would put a dividing line between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

What’s more, to get a deal, the prime minister will have to do more than compromise on the Irish border. The core of Chequers is to stay in the single market for goods but not services or people. Even if the EU makes “counterproposals”, as May wishes, it won’t wear that. But it is hard to see the prime minister agreeing to stay fully in the single market, as that’s contrary to last year’s Conservative manifesto and would be anathema to many of her MPs.

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Fudge off the menu?

It’s possible she might push for a “blindfold” Brexit where we leave the EU with many of the key things fudged. Before Salzburg, there was a high risk that the EU would play along with such a dishonest game to keep the British people in the dark about what Brexit means until it was too late.

But the French president’s desire for clarity rather than fudge has prevailed – at least for now. Emmanuel Macron said yesterday: “Brexit has shown us one thing – and I fully respect British sovereignty in saying this – it has demonstrated that those who said you can easily do without Europe, that it will all go very well, that it is easy and there will be lots of money, are liars.”

Crash-out is crazy

The prime minister’s other main option is to cave into pressure from hardline Brexiters in her party such as Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg and “chuck Chequers”. She could then embrace their proposal for a free trade deal with the EU on the lines of the one Canada has with the bloc (which, incidentally, isn’t nearly as good as the deal we have). Cabinet ministers including Sajid Javid, Andrea Leadsom, Penny Mordaunt, and Esther McVey will push her to do that according to the Times.

The problem is that the EU won’t give us a Canada-style deal unless we first agree a divorce deal – and it won’t agree a divorce deal unless we first agree arrangements to keep the Irish border open. It’s not just May who says she will never accede to that. The DUP will go bananas if the government says yes to border checks in the Irish Sea.

So doing what the hardliners want would amount to crashing out of the EU with no deal at all. They may be happy to risk that. And you can already see the Brexit press ratcheting up the blame game. The Express says the EU is “vengeful”, while the Sun describes the EU as “dirty rats” who have ambushed the prime minister.

May herself is playing the blame game. She said she has always treated the EU with respect; and the UK expects the same. Fair enough. But Chequers was an unworkable plan from the start. May’s own errors have led to yesterday’s diplomatic humiliation, as these excellent pieces in The Times and Telegraph show.

If the prime minister can’t figure out what to do, she could fall on her sword or wait for her colleagues to stab her in the back. Either way, it would then be up to some new prime minister to deal with the mess.

But even that wouldn’t be a solution. The only sensible option is to ask the people whether they still want this train-wreck of a Brexit.

This piece was updated after Theresa May’s press statement at 2pm on September 21

11 Responses to “Where does Theresa May go now?”

  • I think one of the sources of our current confusion is that we have all come to the view the 52% who voted to leave as a solid (majority) group whose wishes should be met. In fact this is not true. There are two quite different groups in there.

    The first group consists of people who want a cooperative relationship with the EU, including trade, and who believed the Brexiteers promises that this could be achieved without the bothersome commitment of membership. They are coming to see that they were lied to.

    The second group consists of true nationalists who want nothing much to do with the EU. Nearly all the Brexit leaders are in this group – in fact they want to go further and get into an economic war against the EU under the leadership of the American right. This means importing US style right-wing politics and economics into this country and give them a dominant position through a trade treaty binding on future governments. The Brexit leaders only occasionally articulate this because they know it is unpopular. They hope to achieve it by eliminating any alternatives.

    In effect the right-wingers are holding the first group as electoral prisoners. If you add that group to those who want to remain you get a clear majority in favour of full cooperation with the EU and the only question is how to achieve it. Johnston, Farage, Rees-Mogg, Murdoch and the rest of them would be consigned to the oblivion of spluttering over the port at black-tie dinners.

  • Good analysis by Keith Macdonald. There is a difference between those leave voters who are commited dogmatic anti Europeans, and the rest who are mildly eurosceptic, but were completly led by the nose by the Brexit spin doctors.

    I wish amongst the Tories there was a better alternative to Theresa May, but sadly, the most likely replacements would be PM’s more likely to torpedo any chance of a remotely acceptable Deal. Some of May’s worst mistakes have been the selection of her ministers. You could scarcely dream up a more undiplomatic foreign minister than Johnson. Fox subordinates everything to his dream of joining a North American trading block, lowering environmental and safety standards in the process, and Raab’s coldly legalistic language is not likley to win many friends. He has also not even mentioned the fate of the 1.5 milion UK citizens in Europe who would be left stranded by any No Deal.
    Our best hope is that a moderate majority of pro-Europe MPs can assert themselves in Parliament. This will need to be on a cross-party basis or it will fail.
    They could submit an amendment to a motion to require a Deal to meet the EU half way to reach a Norway type arrangement, and in any event to block a No Deal, assuming it was able to under Art.50. An amendment could also be submitted to make any Deal legally binding on the outcome of a People’s Vote.

  • Keith,
    I think you are absolutely right on this. Most Brexiteers who argue for the validity of the Referendum result like to talk about 17.4 million people as if they are one homogeneous group that all think like Jacob Rees Mogg. Thankfully, they don’t and so there are people who voted leave who are both open to reason and willing to re-appraise the situation in the light of the facts. Some even spoke up on last nights BBC Question time!
    I would very much like to see the Hard Brexit brigade stand up and explain the trajectory of where they would like to take us all, with the timescale of any supposed benefits. After two years to still get away without doing so is a measure of the ineffectiveness of both Government and the media.

  • What comes across to me is the immature attitude of Mrs May. She appears completely naive if she thought the EU would welcome her Chequers plan. Now she is stamping her feet in temper and demanding the EU thinks again! All of it is for domestic consumption as she is still telling us that Brexit is the will of the British people. Hasn’t she noticed the shift in recent opinion? She is unable to think on her feet and way too dependent on a prepared script. She avoids answering questions directly and provides silly statements that drown in circumlocution. The country is in a very big hole dug by right wing Tories acting out of self interest. Has Corbyn the courage to make a People’s Vote official Labour Party policy? The ball is now in his court. Time for him to show some gumption.

  • When will everybody wake up and smell the rotting food, it is now abundantly clear that May has been obfuscating, and procrastinating, with the intention of a no deal brexit all along.
    Her stupid statement about the EU this afternoon just shows that she continues to procrastinate and is planning to blame EU procrastination, which could not be further from the truth.
    She is plainly and deliberately lying to both sides, and everyone in between.
    She is going hell bent for a disastrous no deal brexit and, although the public attitude has changed to rejecting brexit, for her, her own personal avaricious expectations rule everything she does.
    I have been saying this for months, but nobody takes any notice, preferring to think that she really wants a deal, when she knows that anything she decides to propose cannot legally be agreed by the other 27 members of the EU.
    I used to think that she was incompetent, now I know that she is simply Machiavellian, and getting away with it, because her ministers are weak and useless.

  • A single market for goods but not for services?
    Unfortunately for this idea, a great many transactions are hybrid or containing elements of both goods and service. If I buy a computer, a tangible good, it will come preloaded with software. Is this software a good or a service? When I ring the helpline to enquire about a software function, that is clearly a service that I have paid for when I bought the computer. Will there be a tariff on the service? How will the ‘goods’ and the ‘services’ elements of the product have costs and prices allocated to them to determine what is tariff free? A contract to supply trains from Siemens in Germany will probably include a long term maintenance element: good or service? As in so many things to do with Brexit, the devil is in the detail. There was no detail in the leave campaign. The whole basis of the referendum lacked any legitimacy. I wish I could convince myself that a ‘people’s vote’ does not give a veneer of legitimacy to the original referendum which simply gave a snapshot of the ‘whim’ rather than the ‘will’ of the people.

  • You have to laugh about it! May demanding respect for the UK; who called the EU “the enemy”? Who made out that the EU would crumble before the British onslaught? Who sent silly clowns like Davis and Johnson to do the negotiating? Sorry, but if one entity has treated a ridiculous, incompetent and very embarrassing club like the UK with due respect so far, it is the EU. How could the population here stand this nonsense?

  • There are less than four weeks for May to find a solution (or agree to cave in) over the Irish border issue. If she can’t do this miracle, then the UK is heading for a no deal, cliff-edge Brexit.
    The question then is how our sovereign parliament can assert itself. It is not enough to demand that May goes back for a better deal since the EU will have ended the process. Only two options seem viable – a situation is found whereby the House can compel May to rescind A50,or a “People’s Vote” is agreed to and the EU approached to grant the time for it to be held (I am informed that this is viewed as highly likely to be accepted). Even if when the trade and customs bills come back to the House they are amended to require membership of the Customs Union, they may well be moot since the discussionw with the EU will have closed. In short, it is a bloody mess.

  • @ Dr Mike C
    I take your point that the EU may well have moved on by the time Parliament had amended the Bill to stay in the Customs Union, and more importantly, close alignment with the Single Market. There is also increasing evidence that the EU doesn’t want to spin this out very much longer. However, they follow closely the political shinanaghans at Westminster, and must realise it would be in everybody’s interest to delay Art.50 if there was a clear way forward. However, for that to happen, the pro-European MPs in both major parties must get organised and be prepared to ignore their party whips if necessary. They don’t have much spare time to get their act together.

  • Keith Macdonald, I wouldn’t call the Brexiteers “nationalists” as there’s nothing patriotic about selling Britain out to the Americans!

    They remind me more of the Vichyites in France, or pro-Putin Republicans in the United States: people who want to impose right-wing policies on their country with the help of a foreign power.

  • One of the principal duties of a govt is to protect the people from harm. Yet Kerensky May and her bunch of Bolshevik Tories are deliberately, consciously & wilfully putting the whole country in harm’s way. Food & medicine shortages? This is simply unpardonable. Enough.