Brexit: Wish I May

An update on the Brexit imbroglio. It ain’t over till the thin lady sings.

The US presidential election is losing interest to the average political junkie, though the hard core can fuss over the margin of victory. We Told You So (footnote). So time for a Brexit update, to remind you what a real politician looks like digging herself out of a deep hole.

MayThe politician is Theresa May, catapulted to 10 Downing Street after her rivals obligingly self-destructed. She is disciplined and chilly to an extent that makes Margaret Thatcher or Hilary Clinton look like Oprah Winfrey. So she follows the first rule of being at the bottom of a hole, which is to say as little as possible. It’s a waste of time to guess her real thoughts and intentions. As with Kremlinology, you watch the deeds instead.

What has she done on Brexit, which she opposed without enthusiasm?

  • She has said that “Brexit means Brexit”. This is a clever phrase: it sounds tough and unambiguous, but falls well short of a Sherman pledge. There is no “I”. It could be interpreted as anything from “out regardless” to “out provided the terms are OK”.
  • The procedure for leaving the EU laid down by Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty has not been triggered. Article 50 sets up a two-year ticking bomb deadline for the exit negotiations: if there is no deal, you are out anyway, without any access to the single market beyond that assured by WTO rules. This was designed to stack the negotiating deck in favour of the EU. So May has seen off pressure from European politicians like Hollande and Juncker to get it over with quickly. Invoking Article 50 is a sovereign British decision, essentially hers.
  • She appointed the Brexit leaders in her own party to run the negotiations: Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary (he of the bad hair and worse ErdoÄŸan limerick), David Davis as chief negotiator, and Liam Fox to create a web of new trade deals replacing the EU’s. This was neat vengeance: the Brexiteers said it would be a piece of cake, now they must deal with it. It will make their camp responsible for failure. In another piece of black humour, May appointed another Brexiteer, her hard-right rival Angela Leadsom, to run agriculture: dealing with the interest group that stands to lose most heavily, farmers and rural landowners. Leadsom torpedoed her own candidacy for the Tory leadership by comparing her own family to May’s involuntary childlessness, a move judged too crass by the low standards of Tory infighting.

    These are not the appointments you would make if the priority were the best possible exit terms. Juncker has responded by appointing a French Gaullist hardliner to lead the EU side, Michel Barnier, seen by the City of London as an enemy. It looks as if May sees a bad deal as inevitable.

    The reality, which the Leave campaign fraudulently succeeded in concealing from English voters, is that freedom of movement and access to the single market are linked as founding principles of the EU. Norway and Switzerland have had to accept the former as the price of the latter, the former within the EEA treaty, the latter a bilateral deal. (This has led to a parallel Swiss political crisis following an anti-immigration referendum, worth following.) This linkage drives a brutal wedge between the two pillars of British Toryism, cultural conservatism (now anti-immigrant) and capital (now deeply dependent on European markets).

  • Both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted Remain, though Wales voted Brexit. Their devolved governments would both like to stay in the EU. May has promised them she will take a “United Kingdom approach and objective” to the Brexit talks.  That does not give them a veto. But Brexit against their will would lead to a double constitutional crisis. Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland would press for a second independence referendum – this time « independence in the EU », which she would probably win. In Northern Ireland, the prospect of restoring a tightly policed border with the Republic is unwelcome to Protestants and anathema to Republicans. The Good Friday settlement could unravel, and the Troubles even restart.
    May is a former Home Secretary. She really knows about both Scottish Nationalists and Irish Republicans. If she were forced to choose between honouring Brexit, and the survival of the Union or [update] avoiding [/update] a revival of Republican violence, there is not much doubt which way she would jump.

The scenario for betraying Brexit (which I devoutly pray for) could be a second referendum on the negotiated deal, including carveouts for Scotland and Northern Ireland, and either a cave-in on immigration or a show-me-the-instruments loss of access to the single market. Who would vote for such a barrel of stinking fish? So the UK could end up staying in the EU anyway.

There are plenty of other possibilities. Barnier can’t force May to trigger Article 50 before she’s ready. Conversely, she can’t force him to prenegotiate first. This could drag on and on. Liam Fox needs all the time she can give him. No Whitehall civil servant has negotiated a trade agreement since 1972: it’s been an exclusive Commission competence. There are stories that the Civil Service is recruiting foreigners with the expertise – immigrants.

Footnote – We Told You So

Your humble servant, May 14:

So her [Clinton’s] chances to a sensible bettor are more than Wang’s 70%, a lot more …
My own unscientific hunch is that the presidential election will turn boring in September. Clinton’s lead following the conventions will go firm at a roughly 10% margin and the political class will come to accept that she is sure to win.

With the greater caution of the tenured academic at a prestigious university, Harold Pollack on May 21:

Trump will lose, probably in ignominious fashion … For any number of reasons and causes, Trump may also leave this experience in some personal disgrace. I have no idea whether this will happen because of some racial code-words, some sexist comment, maybe disparaging the disabled, or some financial or tax thing. I think disgrace will come.

It’s not over yet, and our predictions could still be falsified, but really, it couldn’t be going better for them. Even Trump’s disgrace is getting closer, with his “Second Amendment” and “rigged election” jibes and the Russian ties.

Commenters: Please heroically restrict yourselves to Brexit. We know what everybody thinks about Trump and Clinton, right? There will be another Trump post and comment thread along in a minute. There are 83 days of the campaign to endure. We may be reduced to a limerick competition.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

13 thoughts on “Brexit: Wish I May”

  1. Thanks for noting the bit about the Swiss/EU difficulties, which was completely off my radar, despite having a partner with strong ties to the country.

  2. The Beeb is reporting that things are even worse (or better) than this, with the three different Brexiteers May has appointed spending their time on turf battles rather than, you know, putting together plans, negotiating teams and so forth. And others trying to claim that Article 50 will be triggered before the end of the year, even though May has pretty clearly said otherwise. Even more cause for optimism (ahem) comes from the government's (qualified) promise to replace EU funding for agriculture, academics, scientific research centers etc, through 2020. Which in the context of large enterprises is about the right amount of time to wind things down without complete panic.

  3. If she were forced to choose between honouring Brexit and the survival of the Union, or a revival of Republican violence, there is not much doubt which way she would jump.

    Was this passage possibly intended to read "If she were forced to choose between the survival of the Union, or honouring Brexit and a revival of Republican violence, there is not much doubt which way she would jump"?

  4. Is there any chance that there will be negotiations prior to invoking Article 50? I thought that the EU had ruled that out, though I suppose the two sides could feel each other out through approaches like leaking draft negotiating positions to the press.

    If no deal can be negotiated until after Article 50 is triggered, then a rejection of the deal in a referendum would leave the UK on track for exiting the EU, just without a negotiated deal. But it would give May (or her successor) justification to petition the EU to be allowed to remain, and I suspect that the EU would agree to that.

    1. It's getting weird. Presumably Brussels wants to keep the door ajar to a "remain" reversal. But to do that, the (bad) terms have to be public. I suspect there will in practice be some prenegotiation.

    2. It seems that, for better or worse, the EU is taking a fairly hard-line approach to Brexit. And practically speaking it looks as if the british are not in a terribly good negotiating position. Especially for their preferred outcome of all the rights of EU membership with a minimum of responsibilities.

      Once Article 50 is triggered, I wouldn't be sure that there's time for anything but Brexit on the least-bad terms that can be negotiated. Even with bureaucrats on both sides acting as expeditiously as plausible, figure something like a year to hammer out an agreement. If that agreement has to go to a referendum, add a few more months. But meanwhile, the enterprises that can move/restructure will be making their decisions, and want to be safely reconfigured at least a couple months before X-Day. So businesses (and noncitizens) will be making hard-to-revoke decisions well before the official negotiations are done.

  5. I think I said during the campaign I could not see a bunch like Gove, Johnson, and Farage winning – well, I had to eat my words, but since the vote, none of them has prospered. Johnson has survived (barely) as Foreign Secretary, Gove's career is probably over, since he stabbed Johnson in the back during the leadership struggle, Farage has departed a fractious and chaotic UKIP to become a full-blown, active climate change denier. If we knew then what we know now …. ?

    What I did not reckon on was the rank hatred of working class Labour voters for Cameron and Osborne. First warning I had was the Saturday before the vote when the Irish Prime Minister was to visit some Irish-ethnic areas to campaign for Remain. Most of those would be Labour voting. Cameron was to accompany him, but did not because (it was said) his presence would be a negative, not a positive. As it is, Ireland greeted the vote with gloom, misgivings, pessimism and uncertainty, both North and South.

    Nobody is really any the wiser, since then, Teresa May says "Brexit means Brexit", but, begging your pardon Ms May, that is like saying "Cromulence is Cromulence", to borrow a Simpsons'-invented word. No one has a clue was Brexit really means in the details. We vaguely know it was a vote against free movement of Labour to the UK, but for the UK to remain in the European Single Market. If it becomes clear that a non-EU UK will without doubt be a poorer one, as the majority of economists predict, what does that mean? Who is going to be "for" it?

    1. I'm pretty sure that going from being politically dead and buried to being Foreign Secretary counts as prospering. Especially for a guy whose biggest job was being the clownish mayor of London. For about 99.999% of British politicians being made FS is the pinnacle of political achievements.

      1. The newish FO cat, Palmerston, has much more class and staying power. Here he is having a standoff with Larry, the No. 10 cat. If Boris tries this with Theresa May, he'll be on his bike in five minutes. It is not recorded whether these feline Sir Humphreys find any time between turf battles to catch mice, their nominal duty.

        Larry and Palmerston
        Credit: Daily Mail (give the devil his due)

        Social media update: Palmerston has an official twitter feed (@DiploMog). Larry and the Treasury cat Gladstone have unofficial ones (@Number10cat and @HMTreasuryCat).

      2. Teresa May is just following the Corleone family advice "Keep your friends close, keep your enemies closer". It will be interesting to see if Johnson re-builds a power base in the Tories, but at the moment his brand is much tarnished.

  6. That sort of sounds optimistic that Britain will remain…but curious that the markets are not responding that way…sterling is hitting new lows against the dollar. But May is playing a smart game…good for her. Too bad she wasn't PM before this nonsense…

  7. James–In re: your last sentence (under Comments), DO IT. Please do it. The sooner the better. And keep the thread open for a long time.

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