BREXIT UPDATE 29: A DISINTEGRATING GOVERNMENT

The main developments since last Friday fall into three overlapping areas:  1) the Labour/Conservative talks; 2 ) pressure on the Maybot to resign;  her future and that of her deal; 3) the forthcoming EU elections (with debate on the meaning of the results of the local elections).

1)  The Labour/Conservative talks

Last Friday, the talks seemed to offer some hope; this week there appear to be less grounds for optimism.  The Sunday Times last Sunday (May 5) revealed that the Maybot is suggesting a compromise on the customs union according to which there would be a temporary customs union that would last till the next scheduled general election in 2022.  The Labour leadership reacted angrily to the Maybot’s breach of confidentiality; when asked by the BBC if he still trusted the Maybot, the Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell responded: “No. Sorry.  Not after this weekend when she has blown the confidentiality we had, and I actually think she has jeopardised the negotiation for her own personal protection.”[1]

Nonetheless, the talks continue.  However, in a powerful and inspiring speech in Kent on Thursday (May 9), to launch Labour’s campaign for the European Parliament elections, Corbyn included some brief comments on the negotiations: “So far in those talks, there has been no big offer, and the red lines remain.  It’s difficult negotiating with a disintegrating government with cabinet ministers jockeying for the succession, rather than working for an agreement.” [2]

2) Pressure on the Maybot to resign; her future and that of her deal

The Maybot has had another meeting with Sir Graham Brady, Chair of the influential backbench 1922 Committee, which includes the “men in grey suits” who traditionally decide when the time has come for a Tory Prime Minister to leave.   When questioned by the BBC, Sir Graham admitted that there has been “no public clarity” about the Maybot’s position (probably the understatement of the century); but he said that she has agreed to address a gathering of the entire Executive of the 1922 Committee next week, after which meeting a decision will be made about her future.  So this coming week looks like crunch week for the Maybot’s premiership.

In the same interview, Sir Graham also indicated that the Maybot is intending in the very near future, before the May 23 European elections and perhaps even earlier, to bring back her deal to the House of Commons, probably in the form of a second reading of a bill (first announced in November 2017) called the EU Withdrawal Agreement and Implementation Bill (WAI), which is a piece of necessary legislation to make the Withdrawal Agreement into British law.  The WAI bill was intended to be debated after the passing of a parliamentary motion approving the Withdrawal Agreement; the Maybot’s intention appears to be to skip the motion and go straight to a debate on the Bill.[3]  There is no indication, however, that the Bill stands any more chance of passing than the motion. Robert Peston of the major TV station ITV argues that the 1922 Committee has “set a trap” for the Maybot:

“either the bill passes, and she resigns as soon as it become law (as she has promised to do), or it flops, which is what most Tories expect, and it becomes unambiguously clear that she can never deliver Brexit – in which case they will force her out in June or July.”

It is possible that, in a final desperate bid to fulfil her programmed mission to deliver Brexit and secure her legacy before she goes, the Maybot will finally make the compromises required by the Labour leadership, so that Labour MPs will be ordered to vote for the WAI Bill.  But Peston argues that so many Tory MPs would be alienated by a permanent customs union that she would still not get enough votes.[4]  The most recent reports indicate that she seems to be returning to her attempts to win over the DUP, for whose leaders she recently hosted a lunch.[5]

3)  The local and European Parliament elections

  1. a) Debate around the local elections

Some commentators argue that the strong showing of the Liberal Democrats and Greens – both entirely Remain parties – in the local elections indicates a growing support for Remain in the UK; therefore, these pundits claim, the lesson that Labour should take from this should be a move towards unequivocal backing for Remain and a second referendum.  But the pro-Corbyn Skwawkbox blog points out that the independent candidates (many of whom support Brexit) performed even better than the Lib Dems and quotes the highly respected elections expert John Curtice, who argues that the real reason that the Lib Dems did so well in the local elections is not that the country now backs Remain but that the Lib Dems (who had been ostracised until recently because they had been viewed as tainted by their years in coalition with the Conservatives) have now regained their old position as the party of protest in local elections:

“it seems easier to interpret this as evidence of Liberal Democrats recovering from the coalition, being the party of protest, and that’s the basis of their success, rather than necessarily a rush of enthusiasm for the idea of  a second EU referendum.”[6]

  1. b) The European Parliament elections

On Tuesday (May 7), the Maybot’s de facto deputy, David Lidington, announced in Parliament that “regrettably” the UK will have to take part in the European Parliament elections[7] – even if she reached agreement immediately with Labour so that a revised deal would be agreed — either in the form of a motion or of the WAI Bill — with the EU and approved by the House of Commons, there would now not be enough time to pass the necessary legislation before May 23, the day of the European elections.  The new deadline now being envisaged by the Maybot (highly uncertain though her future has now become) is June 30; the first sitting of the new European Parliament is not until early July, so if by then a revised deal could be negotiated with Labour, passed by Parliament and become law, the British MEPs would simply not take their seats.

According to the latest polls for the EU elections, Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party is on 28 per cent; Labour is on 25 per cent; the Conservatives straggle behind on 14 per cent, with the Lib Dems, the Greens and the new Change UK party (the former TIG) all on six per cent and UKIP, Farage’s old party, which has moved to the extreme right, on only three per cent.  The British public has rejected UKIP, which performed very badly in the local elections as well; but the Brexit Party – less extreme but still far right – is still in the lead, though only three points ahead of Labour. Corbyn argued convincingly in his powerful speech (cited earlier) in Kent on Thursday that Labour, which supports a Brexit that can bring the whole country together and work “for the many, not the few”, is the only force that can stop the Brexit Party: “only Labour can see off the Farage snake oil in this election and stand by our country’s values of tolerance, openness and diversity”.[8]

[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-48165373

[2] https://skwawkbox.org/2019/05/09/video-corbyn-only-labour-can-see-off-the-farage-snake-oil-and-full-speech-transcript/

[3] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-48199725

[4] https://www.itv.com/news/2019-05-08/how-tory-mps-set-a-trap-for-may/

https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/explainers/withdrawal-agreement-bill

[5] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/may/09/tories-fear-dismal-results-in-european-elections-meps-say

[6] https://skwawkbox.org/2019/05/04/3-reasons-le2019-results-did-not-show-remain-dominant/

[7] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-48188951

[8] https://skwawkbox.org/2019/05/09/video-corbyn-only-labour-can-see-off-the-farage-snake-oil-and-full-speech-transcript/

For the EU poll see:

https://www.politico.eu/2019-european-elections/united-kingdom/