Even before the PM's closest ally Damian Green imploded, Prospect’s executive editor wasn’t buying shares in her revivalby Jay Elwes / December 18, 2017 / Leave a comment
The first round of Britain’s negotiations with the EU is over. And now, as the cabinet meets for the first time to discuss what that relationship might be, the question becomes one of political will and political capital: does Theresa May have enough of either, not only to reach an agreement with the EU on future relations, but also to sell it back home to the hard-Brexit nationalists on her own benches?
It’s unlikely that May will survive the coming bout of political contortion. As Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, made clear in his comments to Prospect, the EU does not intend to make special concessions to Britain over its economic relations and trade agreements with the EU. “The British have to understand,” he said, that after Brexit “it cannot be business as usual.”
That attitude will cut deeply into the nationalists’ sense of Britain’s clout on the world stage. It has been a central argument of the hard Brexiters that the EU needs Britain more than vice versa. It seems that they genuinely believe this—even though Britain’s economy is equivalent to 3 per cent of global economic output and the EU’s is equivalent to 21.8 per cent.
But the nationalists’ view of where the power lies is quite wrong, and the coming round of trade talks with the EU will be a brutal education on that point. Barnier made clear in his remarks that, although the EU does not seek to “punish” Britain, “no one should be surprised that the French, German, Dutch, Italian and other leaders are anxious the European project is not harmed or weakened by the UK departure.”
Which makes May’s position desperately weak—but that weakness was there case from the very start. A full 43 per cent of Britain’s exports go to the EU, with a value of £240bn. The Prime Minister will have to make a deal that protects that colossal slab of British business, that pleases the EU’s negotiators, and that placates the Brexit hard liners in her own cabinet. It is difficult—in fact impossible—to see how those three constituencies can be satisfied at the same time.
A Prime Minister in a stronger position would be able to deploy brute force. But May has a feeble parliamentary majority and a deeply divided party. And besides, she was always a temporary PM—the political equivalent of a panic buy, snatched off the shelf in the aftermath of the referendum like a jar of bath salts on Christmas eve.
She has since soaked up the ignominy of having to cave in to the EU on the multi-billion-pound exit bill and as such, from the point of view of her opponents in Cabinet, her usefulness is now partly expended. The moment of passage into phase two of these negotiations brings her closer to the moment when the leadership challenge will come.
And it will come. Because, after all, who really wants her there? Certainly not the electorate, who didn’t give her a majority, and not her own MPs, among whom she has antagonised both Leavers and Remainers. As for the wider party, her address to Conference was one of the worst speeches ever made in the history of British public life and to cap it all, the process that dominates her political agenda and with which she is now inescapably associated—Brexit—is rejected by the British electorate by a ten-point margin.
A Prime Minister whom nobody wants pursues an agenda the majority now rejects. As 2018 goes on, people are going to want her even less. She has no allies. The arguments she will have to make in the coming months will be dismissed, the deals she will try to sell will be labelled betrayal and compromise will be impossible. The only real argument left to her will be “Ditch me, get Corbyn”—a line of defence which, remarkably, is based on the likelihood of her party’s electoral defeat.
The year 2018 is starting to smell like an election year. Fear of Prime Minister Corbyn will act as a check on the Conservative party’s willingness to risk an election, but only a partial one. Unless the government undergoes a sudden upturn in competence, the second phase of negotiations will, one way or another, bring Britain to a state of crisis. May was brought in by a snap general election—it would only be fitting for her to exit in the same manner.
As Barnier told us himself, “The most difficult part remains to be done.”
Brexit Britain: the future of industry is a publication which examines the future of UK manufacturing through the prism of the recently released Industrial Strategy White Paper. The report features contributions from the likes of Greg Clark MP, Miriam Gonzalez, Richard Graham MP and Frances O’Grady.
To find out more about how you can become involved in Prospect’s thought leadership programmes, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you want to know all about where industry is headed in Brexit Britain, you can download the whole Brexit Britain: The future of industry reportas a fully designed PDF document. To do so, simply enter your email below. You’ll receive your copy completely free—within minutes.
When you sign up for this free report, you will also join our free Prospect newsletter.
Prospect takes your privacy seriously. We promise never to rent or sell your e-mail address to any third party. You can unsubscribe from the Prospect newsletter at any time.