It’s always a bit fraught to comment on the internal politics of a foreign country, so I hope reader will regard this post as being as much a forcing device as an attempt to gauge the state of play.
One of the things that has been apparent about the posture of Tory party both before and after the Brexit vote is that its decision-making has been driven entirely by short-term political considerations. The very fact that major Conservative players in the Brexit negotiations and the related policy-making keep saying things that are utter nonsense about how the process will work, and kpt acting as if the EU will yield on central issues like the terms of access to the single market, when they been consistently told “no.” This is a frightful disply of unseriousess when the future of the nation is at stake.
And the failure to plot even one step ahead was on display at the famed Birmingham Conservative party conference at which May committed herself to an end of March deadline for triggering Article 50 and taking a firm stance on cutting immigration, which is tantamount to a “hard Brexit”. If you’ve been following the Brexit machinations at all, one of those very consisent messages from EU leaders, from Merkel on down, has been that to have access to the single market, the UK must accept the “four freedoms”. One of those is freedom of movement, meaning immigration.
May’s move toward restrictions on immigration, and with it trade, triggered a swoon in the pound and much consternation among members of the City, since that meant they would lose their passporting rights, necessitating the relocation of some important operations and personnel.
May has succeeded in uniting a large swathe of the country, both Leave and Remain backers against her, including many with her own party, with her hardline anti-immigrant posture. It’s a confusing wild lurch in Tory politics, throwing big business, London, social liberalism, elites, liberal Brexiteers under the bus and courting UKIP voters, the provinces, little Englanders and the English working class, or whatever is left of it these days. Richard Smith called the Birmingham meeting “the most toxic Tory conference evah.”
In fact, immigration was a clear second priority among Leave voters. From Lord Ashcroft polls, based on a survey of 12,000 voters:
Nearly half (49%) of leave voters said the biggest single reason for wanting to leave the EU was “the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK”. One third (33%) said the main reason was that leaving “offered the best chance for the UK to regain control over immigration and its own borders.” Just over one in eight (13%) said remaining would mean having no choice “about how the EU expanded its membership or its powers in the years ahead.” Only just over one in twenty (6%) said their main reason was that “when it comes to trade and the economy, the UK would benefit more from being outside the EU than from being part of it.”
Yet the Government, without skipping a beat, launched xenophobic talk and actions. From InFacts:
Theresa May didn’t have to become prime minister. She took the job because she was ambitious. This involved a Faustian pact with the Tory hardliners to get into Downing Street – deliver Brexit even though she herself campaigned for Remain, albeit in a lukewarm manner. Nobody should feel sympathy as her government flails around, damaging our country in the process.
Nobody should feel sympathy when the Foreign Office gets into a spat with the London School of Economics over whether it said it would only take Brexit advice from UK passport holders. The Foreign Office later claimed it was a misunderstanding and that it would “continue to take advice from the best and brightest minds, regardless of nationality”.
Was there really a misunderstanding? The government’s anti-foreigner rhetoric means it is hard to give it the benefit of the doubt. This, after all, was the week when cabinet ministers – who like May had backed Remain – promised the Conservative Party to make the NHS “self sufficient” in doctors, cut the number of foreign students and crack down on migrants more generally.
There was even the suggestion that companies should be forced to say how many foreigners work for them – a name and shame policy designed to flush out organisations that aren’t doing enough to recruit Brits. Where’s the shame in employing talented hard-working foreigners? In this case, too, the governm
As a result of May’s miscalculation, MPs are now working across party lines to force a Parliamentary vote on Brexit. As one American observer said as soon as he heard of May’s hardline stance, “With a 12 seat majority in Parliament, this is an unstable situation.” From the Guardian over the weekend:
Theresa May is under massive cross-party pressure to grant MPs a vote on any decision to leave or limit UK involvement in the European single market, amid growing outrage at the prospect that parliament could be bypassed over the biggest economic decision in decades.
Tory MPs joined forces with former leaders of Labour and the Liberal Democrats, the SNP and Greens to insist that parliament have a say and a vote, pointing out that, while the British people had backed leaving the EU, they had not chosen to leave the biggest trading market in the western world.
Former Labour leader Ed Miliband held discussions with pro-EU Tory MPs on Saturday, and was said to be considering tabling an urgent question in the Commons, demanding that May appear before parliament to explain its future role in Brexit decisions, when MPs return on Monday.
The SNP and pro-EU Tory MPs Nicky Morgan and Anna Soubry were also considering tabling questions, while former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, now the party’s Brexit spokesman, said it would be appalling if detailed terms of Brexit, including the UK’s future relations with the single market, were not voted on by MPs.
Bloomberg listed a raft of British political leaders objecting to a hard Brexit on Sunday political shows. For instance:
Keir Starmer, Labour’s spokesman for Brexit, said on Sunday that it could be a “disaster” if lawmakers weren’t able to have a say on the terms of Britain’s departure from the EU.
“The terms on which we are going to negotiate absolutely have to be put to a vote in the House, because if we can’t get the opening terms right, we’ll never get the right result,” he said on the “Andrew Marr Show” on the BBC. “Nobody, whether they voted to leave or remain, voted for the government to take an ax to the economy, and the prime minister’s stance on the single market is making it nigh on impossible to have access to the single market, and that is a huge risk to the economy, jobs and working people.”
Former Conservative Education Secretary Nicky Morgan, in an interview on Sky News on Sunday, also called for parliament to have a vote on Brexit negotiations, saying it would be “extraordinary” for that not to happen.
And Bloomberg indicates the rifts go even further:
Splits have also emerged in May’s administration. A government minister speaking on condition of anonymity condemned a proposal to force companies to list foreign workers, proposed by Home Secretary Amber Rudd at the Conservative Party conference on Tuesday, as illegal and discriminatory and said it would have to be abandoned because it wouldn’t pass a vote in parliament.
The only way May’s bone-headed move makes any political sense is if she’s executing a clever scheme to back away from Brexit by putting forward the ugliest version possible, generating a public rebellion. If that turns out to be the case, and she’s also managed to keep her scheme well under wraps, this will have been adeptly played indeed. But the UK’s Brexit politics have been a massive cock-up, and there’s not much reason to see this as a sudden improvement from a bad new normal.