Two resignations in 24 hours bust UK PM's 'soft-Brexit' plans

Dr Oliver Hartwich
The National Business Review
10 July, 2018

Two high-profile cabinet members of the UK’s governing party have resigned in protest at prime minister Theresa May’s position on Brexit.

David Davis, the UK’s Brexit Secretary, and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson stepped away from their roles, saying their government made too many concessions to the EU in the two-year-old Brexit negotiations

Theresa May’s government presented a Brexit plan that in a nutshell equates to free trade with the EU in goods, not in services, using technology to determine which products went where and what tariffs they were subject to.

Last month, Mrs May's government survived a series of votes on Brexit-related legislation in the House of Commons but only after promising that Parliament would have a significant role during the final stages of the process. It has since backtracked on that promise. Though Mrs May's government has pledged to leave the EU single market and customs union, many lawmakers want to at least stay in the customs union

Business lobbies are also criticising Mrs May's plan. Representatives of the UK’s financial and technology sectors warn a deal covering goods but not services would hurt their revenues

Ms May’s position – broadly called a “soft Brexit” – hoped to preserve much of the benefits of EU membership for Britain in a post-Brexit world. The plan, announced in a cabinet meeting last week at Mrs May’s country headquarters, Chequers, would end the free movement of people from the EU to the UK, but effectively remain within the EU customs union.

However, New Zealand Initiative director Oliver Hartwich says the proposal would have effectively turned Britain into a “colony of Europe” and submit the UK to the EU Court of Justice, something the staunch “Brexiteers” (MPs who support a more robust departure from the EU) say is simply a Brexit-in-name-only position.

“Both Boris Johnson and David Davis have for a long time signalled their displeasure with the direction that the prime minister has taken toward Brexit.

“Maybe the timing was surprising because a few days ago at the prime minister’s cabinet meeting there was a display of unanimity at least on the outside. But really, this process has been under way for quite some time,” Mr Hartwich told NBR.

The Brexit supporters in Mrs May’s cabinet had promised to redirect billions of pounds in payments to the European Union to the UK health system. They also want British trade agreements to be enforceable only by British courts. The resignations highlight the rift in the Conservative party between those who want to limit trade disruption through alignment with the EU and those who want the UK to become as independent as possible.

Factions and challenges

Mr Hartwich says the factionalism within the ruling party also extends to various ministries in the civil service.

Britain was completely divided going into the negotiations and having so many voices doesn’t work. They should have had a good brainstorming session at the beginning of this process to decide what they want.

A more practical position would have been to define their stance and not care about what the EU says. They should have put two offers on the table. Either they go back to a WTO status and trade with the EU under those rules or present a comprehensive trade agreement to the EU while still retaining the UK’s independence. Brussels could take it or leave it,” he says

Instead, London was incorporating all sorts of demands from Brussels that weakened London’s position.

Mrs May will struggle to get her way in the upcoming House of Commons votes, scheduled for July 16 and 17, on two bills on British trade policy after Brexit. The opposition Labour Party and some Conservatives have threatened to introduce amendments to the legislation asking the government to negotiate the UK’s continued membership in the EU customs union

Mrs May now faces the challenge of not only sorting out the latest pushback from within her party but also fending off leadership challenges and a potential no-confidence vote. Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London, is one likely contender if the situation slips to this level but the popular MP Jacob Rees Mogg has also been suggested in the last few months as a possible replacement as Conservative leader.

At least [Jacob Rees Mogg] would be a much more interesting character than Theresa May. He is often mocked as the member for the 19th century because of his habits and how he presents himself. But he would have the same challenges in uniting his party as Ms May, just from a different perspective.

Theresa May has to sort this out this week,” Mr Hartwich says.

If Boris Johnson wants to have a go at the leadership of the Conservative party, that would also need to happen this week. I can’t imagine Mr Johnson would be content to resign and be a backbencher.

It was always clear Mr Johnson had ambitions well beyond being mayor of London or foreign secretary. He wants to be prime minister. And it’s inconceivable to have Mr Johnson on the backbench for too long.

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