Just before Christmas, Theresa May returned from Brussels a hero. In the space of a week she had seemingly salvaged a process that appeared on the brink of collapse, as the Democratic Unionist Party – her government’s only lifeline in the House of Commons – had refused to endorse the preliminary deal on the Irish border. It was no good, they argued, to erect what amounted to a border in the Irish Sea. British citizens in Northern Ireland would be free to travel across the border to the Republic and back, but would have to produce passports or similar means of identification if they wanted to enter the mainland UK. A slave to parliamentary arithmetic, the Prime Minister and her negotiating delegation were forced back to the drawing board – and, apparently, secured a breakthrough.
On 15 December, the European Union collectively agreed to allow the Brexit process to move onto phase two, comprising trade talks and the matter of the future relationship between Britain and the EU. This decision was backed by the Irish government and the DUP, who had seemingly found common ground in supporting the redrafted deal for the Irish border. The UK committed itself to ‘full regulatory alignment’ on matters of Ireland to enable a smooth transition, and that was that. Case closed. This saga played out in the press as a significant victory for Downing Street, and on the issue of progression, this was true. The UK had managed to bypass fears of an EU or Irish veto, and would progress to the next stage of talks. But the wider issue remains. The alleged solution is nothing more than the can being kicked down the road, to be dealt with properly at some unknown future juncture. That would be bad enough, leaving aside the undeniable fact that this issue must be revisited before the year is out. A settlement hasn’t even been shunted into the long grass, just weakly thrown a few steps in front of the current government.
the European Union collectively agreed to allow the Brexit process to move onto phase two
This is just one of many issues that plague the government. A depressing number of them are self-inflicted, for instance, the debacle concerning the ‘return’ to the old blue passport. The problem isn’t even to do with the reality that there is no EU directive demanding a change of passport colour, a move that originated from a deliberate decision by the British government. Opinions to the counter have been aggressively dismissed by Manfred Weber, the head of the conservative-leaning People’s faction in the European Parliament, as nothing more than a ‘scam.’ Whilst a switch to blue passports will certainly make a lot of people very happy indeed, these people will predominantly be of the age to remember the blue passports and the switch to burgundy in 1988. The move certainly does not endear the government to the legions of young people already disenchanted by the vote to leave the European Union. I have no emotional connection to a blue passport. In my lifetime, my passport has always given me visa-free access to a raft of countries across Europe, as well as the ability to live and work there. That is about to change, and it beggars belief that a government already bereft of support amongst young people – and in the wake of the snap election, haemorrhaging even more – would seek to alienate itself further from young voters.
The stability of the government also deserves some discussion. The Prime Minister’s position appears, at least on the surface, remarkably more stable than it did three months ago. It does not take long, however, to break through this façade. It takes just 15% of the parliamentary Conservative Party – since the snap election, this translates to forty-eight MPs – to force a vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister. Whilst she may fight it and win, Margaret Thatcher did the same under different rules in late 1990, and we all know how that turned out. Last November, reports circulated that the number of Tory MPs who had submitted a letter of no confidence to the chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee had reached forty. In the time since I began writing this article, another story has erupted concerning how the chairman, Graham Brady, is reportedly ‘ashen-faced’ at the thought that only a handful more letters could topple Theresa May. Were the Prime Minister to be pushed from office, or jump before she is pushed, the government would be thrust into a time-consuming leadership contest at a pivotal time in the Brexit talks.
The Prime Minister’s position appears remarkably more stable than it did three months ago
There has reportedly been discussion of a ‘coronation’, whereby a single compromise candidate for leader would be rallied around and made Prime Minister just a few weeks after a resignation, as happened after the resignation of David Cameron. But this is difficult to imagine in practice. Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, would surely not pass up an opportunity to run for high office again. There are plenty who would stand to oppose him. Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, is the favourite of those Conservatives who desire a ‘soft Brexit.’ Jeremy Hunt, David Davis, and Michael Gove stand ready as Brexiteer candidates for those who find the Foreign Secretary unpalatable. There is even the prospect of a candidate from the hard Remain wing of the Conservative Party, somebody like Nicky Morgan or Anna Soubry. The Prime Minister’s retention of office after the disaster of the snap election was arguably due to this plethora of candidates standing in the wings: a leadership contest in the midst of the Brexit process would be nothing short of chaotic and bloody for all involved. A full contest, involving ballots of MPs to cut the contenders down to two and a subsequent balloting of the full party membership to elect the leader, would take around three months. In arguably the most important year of the Brexit talks, this is three months the government can hardly afford to lose.
Once the necessary forty-eight letters of no confidence are received, the ball starts rolling. The signatories of these letters – and the number of letters that have been received – are completely confidential to everybody except the Chairman of the 1922 Committee. The letters themselves remain on the record unless they are withdrawn. The risk stands that the Prime Minister might fumble some small detail in the months ahead, compromise on an issue that offends a backbencher of any political stripe, and that would spell her downfall. Attempting to chart a path of inoffensive compromise is hardly a solution either. Just this week, Nick Boles and Nicholas Soames, two prominent Conservative MPs, have publicly attacked Downing Street for ‘mediocrity’ and a lack of clear direction and purpose. The negotiation of Brexit would be difficult enough for a strong Prime Minister with a landslide behind them. For Theresa May, leading a minority government with the constant threat of a leadership coup hanging over her, it is unfathomably more difficult. Suffice to say, the next year will be extremely stressful indeed for those in the upper echelons of government.
It is, of course, remarkable that the Prime Minister has made it this far in the wake of the election. In the days following, as furious Tory MPs rounded on the leadership and Grenfell Tower burned, it seemed she had just days left. In my last article, in September, it seemed it would be impossible for such a weakened Prime Minister to chart their way through the first phase of the Brexit talks. When October’s party conference proved a shambles, I was convinced her time was up. At Christmas, I was increasingly convinced that Theresa May would be able to stick around until 2019, and the end of the Brexit process, and yet here we are. The year ahead will be dominated by difficult political challenges. Not only does the government have to decide officially what sort of Brexit it wants – membership of the customs union? A clean break from Brussels? – but it also has to navigate what are likely to be poor local elections in the spring and a myriad of scandals and leadership rumblings we cannot even begin to predict now. All the while, the ever-present spectre of Ireland and the impending vote in the House of Commons on the final deal hang over proceedings. A change of Prime Minister or a general election are unlikely this year but, as the last few years have proved, stranger things have happened.
It is remarkable that the Prime Minister has made it this far in the wake of the election
As I conclude, I find myself returning to the title of this piece. There is certainly something apt about ‘Some Vague Utopia’, a phrase drawn from the poetry of Irish poet W. B. Yeats. The quote’s Irish roots are certainly important, as the issue of Ireland will make or break the Brexit talks, but the wider ramifications of the phrase are more interesting. In all likelihood, Britain will leave the European Union in just over a year’s time. In all likelihood, we will carve a new place in the global economy distinct from the EU, and with time British institutions and businesses will adjust, and life will go on as before. But nobody seems to know what this new place will look like.
It is shocking that the Cabinet only convened in December, nine months after the invoking of Article 50, to discuss what sort of Brexit we were actually heading for. With a preliminary Brexit deal needing to be settled by mid-autumn in order to allow time for the required votes of approval in the British and European Parliaments, we are still – chillingly – not sure about what such a deal will look like. Even the strident Brexiteers in the Cabinet, Johnson and Gove, appear unsure of what the end state of Brexit will look like, although they are convinced that it will be fantastic.
So, that is where the ship of state is heading. As the Prime Minister was fond of saying in her first few months in office, Britain is leaving the European Union. 2018 will be the year we find out exactly what that looks like.