- This week has seen a highly effective and apparently co-ordinated series of interventions from pro-EU figures.
- Theresa May’s government has struggled to react to the latest attempts to prevent a ‘hard Brexit’ outside of the customs union and single market.
- The prime minister will make a landmark speech on Brexit on Friday.
- Yet before she even gets up to speak, external events are tying her hands.
LONDON – All governments eventually die, but the moment of expiration is not always evident from the outside.
After more than a decade in power, the last Conservative government effectively met its end on Black Wednesday in 1992, yet John Major carried on for another five years as prime minister before finally being wiped out by Tony Blair’s New Labour.
In politics, the moment of death can sometimes be clearer from inside government than out. In 1993, a year after the market crash, the then Chancellor Norman Lamont left the Cabinet with a stinging attack on his own government which he said now gave “the impression of being in office but not in power.”
As Theresa May sits down with her Cabinet this morning for a special meeting to discuss her big Brexit speech on Friday, a similar sense of powerless office pervades Westminster. From day to day May’s government is rocked by interventions from inside and outside her own government. Whether it’s at the hands of the EU, her own ministers, her rebel backbench MPs, or the Labour opposition, the prime minister is in a state of constant reaction against external and internal forces, none of which she appears able to shape.
This week those forces appeared to coalesce for the first time in an apparently co-ordinated attempt to shift the prime minister away from a ‘hard Brexit’ outside of the customs union and single market. In a series of apparently planned interventions, Conservative backbench MPs, former civil servants and senior EU figures all made a series of highly effective attacks on the government’s agenda, which has left the prime minister looking more vulnerable than ever before.
To recap, in recent days we have seen:
- The EU demanding Northern Ireland stay within the orbit of the customs union and single market
- A highly damaging leak of a letter by Boris Johnson apparently conceding a hard border in Northern Ireland
- John Major and Tony Blair make two speeches in favour of a soft Brexit
- The former civil service chief at the International Trade Department completely overshadow Liam Fox’s big Brexit speech
- The leader of the opposition back staying in a Customs Union
- Business groups backing Jeremy Corbyn over his Brexit policy
- Eight Conservative MPs sign an amendment demanding Customs Union membership, despite warnings it could bring down the government.
The suspicion among Brexiteers that the Remain-backing “establishment” has been conspiring to prevent Brexit has long been overwrought, but for the first time, it now appears to have some justification. As one Conservative Brexit rebel told Business Insider this week,“we realised we needed to stand up and be counted.”
After a year in which May’s hard Brexit agenda has held sway over the political landscape, the forces of Remain are now effectively fighting back. Yet for Remainers, it is not the “establishment” seeking to prevent May from implementing her Brexit agenda, but the constraints of reality itself.
As Conservative MPs told BI this week, there is no longer a parliamentary majority for the kind of hard Brexit that May seeks, nor is there any practical way in which such a Brexit could be implemented without imposing the sort of hard Northern Ireland border which May has promised not to impose. As the EU’s Brexit steering committee member Philippe Lamberts told Business Insider, “the thing the British government is bumping into regularly is not our resolve. It is just the resolve of reality.”
Ultimately if a hard Brexit is stopped, it will be stopped not by Conservative MPs or Jeremy Corbyn, but by the severe power imbalance in these negotiations between the UK and the EU. In almost all international negotiations, the larger partner ultimately prevails and that is exactly what we are seeing now, albeit quite slowly. As Lamberts told BI: “I see the whole process in the UK as a slow and painful process of coming to terms with reality. It’s not really a negotiation. You don’t negotiate with reality.”
The problem for May is that at every stage, the government’s reaction to this new dawning reality has been slow, poorly co-ordinated, and ultimately ineffective. At no point has it ever felt like May had a plan for how to turn the situation around to her own benefit.
So today, as Theresa May once again seeks approval from her own deeply divided Cabinet, the sense of a government, in Norman Lamont’s famous words being “in office but not in power” has never been more keenly felt.
Of course, if recent years have taught us anything it is that modern politics is deeply unpredictable and volatile.
And despite everything, public support in the polls for May’s government remains stable. Nor does there appear to have been a major public shift towards remaining in the European Union. For now, May’s position seems relatively secure. Despite warnings that rebel MPs risk overthrowing their own government, there is little demand inside the Conservative party for another leadership election, let alone another general election.
Yet the death of a government often comes long before it finally leaves office. So while Theresa May will remain in Downing Street for the foreseeable future, her power is rapidly and visibly slipping away.
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