The Chequers summit cannot save May’s premiership

The prime minister has only herself to blame for the unnecessary Brexit horror that is unfolding

July 04, 2018
Photo: THIERRY ROGE/Belga/PA Images
Photo: THIERRY ROGE/Belga/PA Images

One week before last year’s general election, Theresa May warned the nation that if it made Jeremy Corbyn prime minister, he would “find himself alone and naked in the negotiating chamber of the European Union.” Voters instead opted to send Theresa May into that chamber alone and fully clothed. She could scarcely have achieved less if she had decided not to go in at all.

Leavers and Remainers can all agree: last week’s European Council summit was a disaster. For the first time since October, when the EU27 declined to conclude the first phase of negotiations, May left Brussels with nothing. This in itself is devastating. That the national conversation deemed it unworthy of significant comment or surprise makes it even more so.

It is worth recapping what the negotiation sequencing was intended to achieve. Having triggered Article 50 prematurely, then wasted the first three months on a disastrous general election, the prime minister was desperate to end 2017 with a conclusion to the first phase. That is, to resolve the issues of money, citizens’ rights and Ireland at the December summit. Initially she refused to make a single guarantee on any, and in the end agreed to everything the EU demanded on all three. In March, she submitted further by giving up any pretence that we could deviate from EU rules during a transition period. We would not, after all, “end free movement of people” in 2019.

She made all of these entirely predictable concessions so that she would be able to begin negotiating the famous trade deal: the most complex and comprehensive trade agreement in world history, other than the EU single market itself. This, she and Brexit Secretary David Davis assured us, would be agreed by October 2018 and ready to sign off on Brexit day. The two years after Brexit would constitute an “implementation” period to bring this deal to fruition. No matter that even bog-standard trade deals can take seven or more years to agree; this one would be easy.

Nothing—not a single thing—has worked out as the prime minister planned or promised. The recent June summit, which many once expected to produce the flesh and bones of the final deal and future direction, ended in deadlock. The trade deal has not only not been agreed, but preliminary negotiations have not even begun. This is not slacking or heel-dragging on the part of the EU. It is because the UK government, more than two years after the referendum and less than four months before the deadline, has still not agreed its initial position. The chaos cannot be overstated.
“Nothing—not a single thing—has worked out as the prime minister promised”
The European Council conclusions make for grim reading. Couched behind the diplomatic politesse is real anger and almost bottomless frustration.

The EU “expresses its concern that no substantial progress has yet been achieved on agreeing a backstop” for the Irish border, which is intended to preserve the Good Friday Agreement. It “recalls the commitments undertaken by the UK in this respect in December 2017 and March 2018,” and in other words demands to know why the UK either didn’t understand what it committed to then or refuses to keep its word now. It reiterates that “negotiations can only progress as long as all commitments undertaken so far are respected in full,” which means that nothing progresses until the UK signs off on the backstop. It calls for “realistic and workable proposals from the UK as regards its position on the future relationship,” in stark contrast to the default cakeism and unicorn-chasing.

Finally, it “renews its call” for all member states, institutions and stakeholders to “step up their work on preparedness at all levels and for all outcomes.” They might as well have agreed a memo that said “these people genuinely don’t know what they’re doing, so make sure you do.”

The government’s spin has been half-hearted or non-existent. Some sources had the chutzpah to allege that the UK “won” because it once again got away with it. Alternatively, the EU “let them off the hook.” The opposite is true in each case. The UK went in with nothing and got away with the same. The EU in fact put the British government on the hook. Or, to coin a different metaphor, Brussels simply gave it enough rope to hang itself slowly over the summer.

The government’s other comical excuse was that the Council could not agree any conclusions before the UK had reached its own. In a brutally honest sense, this is correct—rather like saying you could not have been thrashed in the football match because you had in fact been too cowed and unprepared to even venture onto the pitch.

These government sources insisted that after this week’s Chequers summit, all would be well.

All will not be well. The Chequers summit this Friday will not solve the government’s problems, nor is the summit’s timing the reason for the EU’s frustration. The cabinet is on the other side of the world from where it needs to be. While the EU is insisting on an endgame choice of sea border for goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland or the full customs union and single market for the whole UK, British ministers are arguing about how to modify a series of customs proposals that the EU comprehensively dismissed almost a year ago. It is not so much re-arranging the deck-chairs on the Titanic as arguing over the order of re-arrangement while half the chairs are already underwater.

A white paper will follow, which promises more of the same cherry-picking, to be met with more of the same EU rejection. The paper will apparently be translated into every EU language so the government can appeal directly to the member states. That too will fail. The reason Brexit is plunging into the quicksand is not that other Europeans don’t speak English. The problem is that they speak and understand it only too well. The UK and EU are not speaking different languages, they are occupying different mental universes.
“Brussels has no incentive whatsoever to back down, and almost certainly will not”
If May had an ounce of shame, she would wince at the thought of the empty boasts that she perpetrated for so long, and change course. Instead, her hubris merely chains her to a rapidly sinking ship. In the Commons on Monday, she doubled down on her impossible ambitions and uncompromising red lines. We would definitely be leaving on 29th March next year, come what may. Staying in the single market or keeping free movement would not be respecting the referendum result.

Then the outright misunderstandings and falsehoods: only the UK would have competence over the border in Northern Ireland, as opposed to the UK and Ireland jointly. We could still be a member of Europol. As for the trade deal which would definitely be wrapped up by October? There was a partial concession to reality, but hardly a climbdown: “we should be negotiating for sufficient detail of our future relationship, such that that will be clear” at the point of withdrawal, she said.

The EU could, of course, let the PM off the hook, by giving her everything she wants, and sacrificing its own credibility and cohesion. The question is why it would ever need to entertain such a proposition. It currently has the UK government exactly where it wants it. Brussels has no incentive whatsoever to back down, and almost certainly will not.

There is no escaping the awful truth. May has survived on delusion and dishonesty alone. Whether she meant to soak herself in untruth is irrelevant. She cannot let go of it now. The reality of the situation will defeat her. The question is when this becomes clear to everyone else.

Walking naked onto a stage when you are supposed to be clothed is the stuff of bad dreams. But the real nightmare is Brexit itself. May has created this totally unnecessary horror for herself and for the country by failing to recognise the referendum’s mandate for compromise, and by privileging ideology and party management over jobs and the economy. It is now too late for her to save her premiership. But the country may wish to save itself.