It took the UK government over 2 years from the EU referendum and a full 15 months from the start of the Article 50 period to decide its Brexit position – what became known as the Chequers Deal. But then Boris Johnson and David Davis promptly resigned within days, undermining it. But somehow the government held together. Johnson retreated to the backbenches and has been plotting and provoking since then.
Meanwhile May still believes in her Chequers Deal, writing to Tory Party members to commend it to them. Even with vocabulary in the letter befitting of the populist right, Tory members are not amused – three fifths of them do not like the deal according to Conservative Home.
And that is before you even come to the EU side.
The EU’s chief negotiator Barnier was not really pleased by the proposal, as he outlined in an op-ed on 2nd August in 20 European newspapers. “as the UK has decided to leave the Single Market,” he wrote, “it can no longer be as close economically to the rest of the EU. The UK wants to leave our common regulatory area, where people, goods, services and capital move freely across national borders.”
Smash. That is the sound of the death of the Chequers proposal, that tried precisely that – freedom of movement for goods but nothing else. As Jonathan Lis wrote, Barnier killed Chequers and with it the UK government – perhaps just that the UK government does not know it is dead yet.
May and her ministers have nevertheless been trying a charm offensive in Europe’s capitals, but as Rafael Behr icily wrote “[May] held talks with Emmanuel Macron […] Or rather, she talked and he listened.” The anonymous Brexit commentator @Sime0nStylites rightly pointed out the eerie silence post May’s meeting with Macron in this excellent thread.
All of this, it seems to me, leaves the Brexit negotiations in a very difficult spot when talks resume later this month. Chequers was as far as May thought she could go, and indeed Johnson and Davis jumping and the view of Tory Party members might even indicate May had gone too far. Yet May is faced with a EU that is in no mood to accept a proposal that looks to them just like the latest version of UK cherry picking, and the EU stands as strong, as resolute, and as united behind Barnier as it has all along.
So what happens next?
Something has to break. The crucial questions are what breaks, and when it breaks, and what crisis results.
The UK government could conclude it is getting nowhere in its negotiations, break off talks, and then proceed towards a No Deal scenario. Cue panic in the UK, bank runs, companies announcing their exit, government planning for food shortages. I cannot see that happening, even now. And were that to happen the rump of sane Tories around Grieve and Soubry would surely defect to put a stop to the madness, May’s government would collapse, and a new election or some caretaker administration would ensure some sanity were restored before the UK crashed out.
More likely is that the political pressure within the Conservative Party becomes too much to bear as a result of the irreconcilable differences between the UK government and EU positions I outline above, and a plot to oust May finally gains ground this autumn – the hard Brexit right rallies behind Johnson, the slightly more pragmatic ones group around Javid or Hunt, and – considering how old, highly conservative, and fiercely EU-sceptic the members of the Tory Party are (75% of them voted Leave) – one presumes Johnson wins.
The problem with this is not necessarily Johnson, but the issue of time, as the Brexit timetable is already so ridiculously tight. 29 March 2019 is just over 7 months away, and a good few months are needed for the EU Member States to ratify a withdrawal agreement. As a Tory leadership election would take a couple of months to complete – and intense negotiations would not be possible during this time – achieving a successful negotiated agreement if the Tories were to oust May would become close to impossible. Faced with that scenario, the EU would be forced to extend the Article 50 period (Grüne MdB Franziska Brantner has begun to push for such a delay), because the EU itself also fears the consequences of a No Deal Brexit. And the EU is not going to push the UK towards the cliff edge for no reason other than political dysfunction within the Tory Party.
Plus the shadow of a UK General Election also hangs over all of this. Dominic Grieve has said he would have to leave the Tory Party were Johnson to become leader, and I cannot see how Johnson could hold together May’s flimsy majority. Likewise were a slightly more pragmatic candidate to prevail, would he or she be able to hold the fractious party together? And if the UK faced a General Election then we are back to the issue of the whole Brexit timetable having been blown off course, and an extension of the Article 50 period would have to be discussed.
Last but not least, what about the idea of a further referendum on the UK’s EU membership? I cannot see how this could happen before 29 March 2019 – there is not the time to do it within the timetable by which Brexit is supposed to be concluded, and by the time UK Parliament might be ready to support such a referendum – after a leadership election in the Tory Party or, more likely, after a UK General Election – the clock will be dangerously close to 29 March 2019. So better a Brexit delay (by extending Article 50) and after that a possible further referendum, with a good chance that Remain would be the outcome (as today’s new research concludes).
So in short: UK political crisis, Brexit delay through Article 50 extension, and a further referendum – and Remain.