Comment’s Luke Wheeler discusses the release of Theresa May’s final Brexit deal, and the repercussions this may have on her position in the Conservative party
Last Wednesday night (14/11/18), the UK finally got to see how it would withdraw from the EU. The unveiling of this agreement to the cabinet and subsequently the general public marks the end of the beginning of Brexit, but it is merely the first piece in the multi-stage puzzle that will see the UK establish its future relationship outside the EU.
The withdrawal agreement’s purpose is to establish how and when the UK leaves the EU, and what will happen should a subsequent trade deal not be reached within the succeeding 20 month time limit. Since the 2017 election, the Prime Minister’s position has been a carefully maintained balancing act, as she attempts to keep both the 27 EU member nations and her minority government on her side. The last week has seen tensions increasing within the House of Commons, with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), on whom the Prime Minister relies for her parliamentary majority, stating that they would not be able to support the Government if it brought forward an agreement that altered Northern Ireland’s relationship with the UK. Moreover, the pro-Brexit backbench Conservative MPs have been increasingly vocal in their ire, whilst the opposition have maintained their arguably muted response to proceedings.
However, whilst May seems to have managed the European end of things for now, the challenges she faces at home could prove to be the beginning of her end. The unveiling of the deal alone was enough to put the PM on an uneven political footing, despite the fact that her Cabinet, at least publicly, seemed united behind her. However, this facade crumbled overnight, as Thursday (15/11/18) saw the resignation of two senior and two junior ministers, with the PM losing her Secretary for Work and Pensions and her second Secretary for Exiting the European Union (Brexit Minister to you and me). The fact that the Prime Minister has burnt through two Brexit Secretaries is exceedingly telling. Both David Davis and Dominic Raab were strong pro-leave MPs, and they both found themselves unable to stomach the PM’s vision of Brexit. One has to wonder whose dogma was the most abrasive in the relationship between the PM and her Brexit Ministers. Theresa May has gained a reputation as a stubborn politician, and David Davis has certainly been dogged in his belief in a harder vision of Brexit, though it seems like the PM’s desire to deliver a ‘national interest Brexit’ may well have forced out her Brexit Ministers, for better or worse.
Whilst the ministerial resignations have whipped up a media frenzy, there is an understated, yet potentially more damaging, act that could scupper May. Thursday afternoon saw Conservative back-bench MP Jacob Rees-Mogg state that he had handed in a letter of no confidence in the Prime Minister. Whilst Rees-Mogg can be written off by some as an Edwardian caricature, he is representative of the small but outspoken group of Conservative backbenchers known as the European Research Group (ERG), who are exceptionally keen for as hard a Brexit as possible. In order for a Conservative Party leadership election to occur, 48 letters of no-confidence must be handed in. The ERG has previously threatened such an action, and stated that they have enough Conservative MPs on-side to do so, though these statements have often been taken with a pinch of salt. The fact that Rees-Mogg has been seen to take such an action publicly may well hint that a stealthy erosion of the PM’s power has been ongoing, and that this is a final and ceremonial nail in the coffin. That being said, not enough letters have been received yet, so the PM still has a little life in her.
Regardless of any political posturing from those surrounding her, the Prime Minister finds herself in an exceptionally difficult position. The parliamentary arithmetic does not look good, the opposition are almost certain to vote down her deal, as are the DUP, and the Prime Minister won’t even be able to rely on the votes of her own party. Both major parties are split on how to deliver Brexit, whether there should be a second referendum, and whether or not they believe in their own leadership. At the moment Theresa May is still in power, but the waters she will have to navigate for her Brexit deal to gain approval are becoming even murkier and shark-infested. Her critics and detractors are drawing ever closer, blood is in the water, the question is, will it be enough to bring her tumbling down?