Why May’s middle way caused such disarray

In trying to steer between Remainers and hard-Brexiteers, the ‘Brexit Prime Minister’ was always at risk of displeasing all sides.

BRINO backlash

For Euro-sceptics who cheered May’s Lancastrian vision, the Withdrawal Agreement crosses so many red lines that it’s a Brexit in Name Only (Brino), not worth the copious paper it was written on. They point to arrangements which, until a future trade deal or association agreement is achieved which solves the Irish border problem, will keep the UK in a customs union (‘arrangement’) and large elements of the single market. This will stop it concluding separate trade deals, or varying its regulations without Brussels’ approval, and keep it under ultimate ECJ jurisdiction even if a joint committee has a first go at solving problems.

Image copyright of Marmotuca on Flickr

Remaining dissatisfied

Trade frictions are minimised by keeping tariffs aligned, and rules closely harmonised for sensitive service exports including finance. But even minimal friction could cause a catastrophic lapse from present friction-free arrangements, as when a few minutes’ stoppage time for Dover’s 10,000 daily trucks causes motorways to block and composts the perishable cargoes.

From the start, her solution risked going down as worse than either staying in the EU or making the ‘Clean’ break her first two Brexit Secretaries fought for.

The young people who mostly voted to remain in the EU were not around for the first series of Auf Wiedersehen Pet , an iconic television show in which recession-hit builders find work in booming West Germany and later Spain. But they recognise the dangers of not having a single market they can easily go to work in, and trade with, if things slow down at home — even if not convinced by studies suggesting that recent immigration from the EU has raised rather than compromised their work chances closer to home.

Leaving under a cloud

May’s hope was that, when the alternatives are a No Deal condemned as disastrous by business groups and a No Brexit that would betray the referendum, voters — in the Commons as well as the country at large — would see hers as the only viable way forward.

Even if it could be forced through on the third attempt, with the clock running down and no alternatives available, May’s Deal would always be the one that no-one wanted.

The strength of the ongoing EU ties imposed by the Agreement, and the weakness of commitments in the Declaration, raised the prospect that largely unchanged rules will continue to apply not just through the transition period to end-2020, but for at least two further years . That proved a nightmare scenario for Brexiteers. If the economy performs well and immigration slows down during this time, people will wonder why any further, potentially disruptive change is needed. If there’s another slowdown or recession, it will trigger resistance — from business leaders if not their employees — to any further steps away from Europe that would deepen short-term troubles even if they promise an eventual new dawn.

Not shaken into submission

When the Prime Minister’s persuasive powers fell short, she had one rescue strategy in reserve. This was to rely on an adverse external reaction to any parliamentary defeat for her Plan, forcing MPs to rush back into the chamber and pass it on a second attempt. It had worked in the case of the US Troubled Asset Relief Programme (TARP), a crisis-fighting debt relief scheme whose defeat in Congress in September 2008 sparked a financial market panic, hastening the passage of a fractionally amended measure several days later. Mrs May hoped that similarly, the initial defeat of her deal invoke a scary ‘No Deal’ scenario of grounded planes , collapsed investment plans and thirty-mile queues outside Dover, prompting a panicking parliament to pass it on the second attempt.

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