Theresa May has at last managed to negotiate a Withdrawal Agreement between the UK and the EU. That Agreement has clearly shown two things:
- The best deal the UK can get is a transition period during which everything remains the same (except the UK has no influence in Brussels), followed by a backstop relating to goods (similar to Turkey’s arrangement). During the backstop period, the UK will have to implement EU rules in relation to competition and state aid, employment and environment standards and tax, but will have no say in how they are made. While the backstop will only take effect if a new trade agreement is not agreed between the UK and the EU by the end of the transition period, I think there is a good chance such a trade agreement would be very similar to the backstop in its essentials.
- The EU did not ‘blink’ at the last minute, as the Brexiters always said it would, and essentially got its way in negotiating the Withdrawal Agreement. They took full advantage of their stronger negotiating power in relation to the UK
The Agreement has also caused a fresh crisis in the Conservative Party, with the Brexit Secretary and a few other Ministers resigning. Brexiter MPs are also threatening, again, to spark off a leadership contest to replace May as Prime Minister. May insists however that she will see the Agreement through.
Two groups of Leave voters
What is likely to happen next? There is much speculation about May being replaced as Prime Minister, followed by a new election or a second referendum. However, I believe there is a good chance she will get the Withdrawal Agreement through Parliament. I have reached this conclusion mainly because I think May has correctly interpreted the views of most people who voted to leave in the 2016 referendum. There were actually two groups of Leave voters:
- the Brexiters ‘proper’, like Johnson, Gove, Davies and Rabb, who want the UK to make a clean break with the EU and create a Singapore like state on the edge of Europe; and
- the people who wanted to stop or at least severely restrict immigration (not just from EU countries but from everywhere) and return to the 1950s, but without significant economic damage.
The first group of Leave voters, the Brexiters proper, were always a small minority, but they did their best to capitalise on the dislike of immigration felt by many people in the UK, egged on by press stories about a stream of refugees arriving in Europe from Syria and Africa. The Brexiters’ main goal, however, is for Britain to capitalise on its prowess in financial and other service exports and to attract investment to the UK through a low tax, low employment standards regime. They are prepared to pay the price of the UK’s manufacturing industry being eliminated, as their favourite ‘economist’, Patrick Minford, has said will happen.
The second group of Leave voters, however, were a large majority of the total. I expect they also comprise a majority of Tory voters, though possibly not Tory party members. This group of voters was mainly concerned about immigration and hoped the UK could return to the supposed halcyon days of the 1950s and 1960s when they were in their youth and there were far fewer foreigners about. They were also attracted by the ‘take back control’ and sovereignty themes, but I believe this was secondary for most of them. I am of course over generalising here. Many Leave voters were under 50 years of age and many also suffered from austerity measures imposed by the Coalition Government and the present Tory Government following the financial crisis. I nonetheless believe immigration was the main issue for the majority, though it may have been dressed up in the form of ‘take back control’ and sovereignty.
The Withdrawal Agreement delivers the majority of Leave voters’ main requirements
The relevance of the above discussion to the Withdrawal Agreement is that it basically delivers what a majority of Leave voters wanted. It enables the UK to impose its own immigration regime from the end of 2020. It will also mean that the UK is ‘in control’ again, as far as these voters is concerned. I realise that the UK will have no control at all, or only the power to make suggestions, in areas affecting trade in goods. However, many Leave voters will regard that as a question of ‘details’, and we know from the referendum campaign that they do not take well to being lectured by experts. We will have the trappings of sovereignty, with a new passport colour and dedicated immigration machines at airports for UK nationals. That will be enough for most Leave voters.
In satisfying the wishes of a majority of Leave voters, the Withdrawal Agreement also satisfies the wishes of a majority of Tory Party members. This is what Theresa May has been focussing on. The Withdrawal Agreement enables her to deliver Brexit in a way that meets a majority of Leave voters’ main concerns. There will be fewer Eastern European migrants and they will see various manifestations of sovereignty being ‘restored’.
The marginalisation of the ‘Brexiters proper’
It is no wonder therefore that Theresa May has so doggedly pursued this Agreement and will now do her best to get it through Parliament. I believe the Brexiters proper will be increasingly marginalised. They represent a minority of Leave voters in any case, and they have already had many opportunities to remove May that they have not taken. Most importantly, there is minimal support in the UK for their Singapore style vision. Events over the past few days appear to confirm this. They have not yet been able to secure the necessary number of MPs’ letters to trigger a leadership contest to replace May. The fact that several Brexit Ministers such as Michael Gove and Penny Mordaunt have not resigned but are continuing as Ministers despite the Withdrawal Agreement not meeting their requirements is a sign that they see their power is fading. A former Brexit Minister David Davies is saying the Withdrawal Agreement should be renegotiated. He said on BBC Radio 4’s Today program on 16th November:
“The European Union has spun this out deliberately to try to use time against us. But European negotiations are never over until they’re concluded”.
This is the sort of deluded thinking about the withdrawal deal that has prevailed ever since the time of the referendum. Someone must tell Davies that the time for negotiation is finished and nothing more can be achieved. He would presumably push the negotiations to the point when markets crash and patients are queuing at surgeries across the UK to stock up on medicines against the prospect of a ‘no deal’ departure.
Why most Brexiter and DUP MPs will vote in favour of the Withdrawal Agreement
May’s next challenge will be to secure the backing of Parliament for the Withdrawal Agreement. As Brexiters realise that their power has melted away, I believe only a small number of them will vote against it. They will be frightened that rejecting the Agreement could lead to another election and/or a second referendum. They will also hope that in time we will be able to negotiate more favourable terms with the EU (hope springs eternal in Brexiters’ breasts). The DUP will likely come around for the same reasons. While Labour will oppose the Agreement, a few Labour MPs from Leave voting constituencies will likely vote for it as it meets their constituents’ wishes. I suspect this will all lead to a narrow vote in favour of the Withdrawal Agreement.
I certainly hope things will not turn out as I predict and that we will instead have a second referendum. Brexit is a retrograde step to take at a time when Europe needs to hold together in the face of international threats to its security and economies. It will damage the UK’s economy and reduce tax revenue at a time when the government is struggling to meet needs for increased spending on health and welfare. It will remove rights of free movement that have given job and retirement living opportunities to millions of British people. All this to keep Eastern Europeans from coming here to do manual jobs that most people in the UK do not want to do.
It is also ironic to implement a decision to leave the EU that was partly based on ‘taking back control’, by accepting EU rules affecting important parts of our economy over which we will have no say. As Michel Barnier’s assistant Sabine Weyand wrote:
“We [the EU] should be in the best negotiation position for the future relationship. This [the Agreement] requires the customs union as the basis of the future relationship. They [the UK] must align their rules but the EU will retain all the controls. They apply the same rules. The UK wants a lot more from the future relationship, so the EU retains its leverage.”
While the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement are very disappointing, my own view is that it will be difficult to prevent May getting it through the House of Commons. She correctly says it delivers on what (most) Leave voters wanted, and she is an extremely determined politician.