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.

Although the Withdrawal Agreement that emerged from the September 2018 Salzburg Summit quashed the optimistic concessions sought in the Chequers Plan , Theresa May could still present it as a bespoke deal that honoured the 2016 Referendum.

It seemed to stay within the ‘red lines’ set out in her January 2017 Lancaster House speech , defining what a ‘good’ deal would comprise. These foresaw the UK immediately regaining the power to sign its own trade deals (by leaving the EU customs union), set its own rules and slow down immigration (by leaving the single market), judge its own conduct (by letting its Supreme Court rule in place of the European Court of Justice, ECJ), and stop its EU budget contributions. The Deal came wrapped in a Political Declaration filled with glowing aspirations for the future relationship, while the grim reality of disentanglement was buried in 580 pages of legalistic text .

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.

Some even suspect the Agreement leaves UK borders open to immigration via Ireland and the Common Travel Area, or will just allow in more non-EU migrants to fill the gap . Brexiteers fear that by cautiously creeping out, instead of boldly leaping out, the UK will get stuck in a storm-blown backyard that will never reach the sunny uplands that lie beyond.

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.

Remainers point out that immigration could have been restricted without leaving the EU , while employers warn of critical labour shortages if future curbs are too strict. And while some UK employees might temporarily gain from lessened competition with continental rivals, this comes at the cost of losing reciprocal opportunities abroad.

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.

But her opponents branded this as the ongoing acceptance of EU rules without any voice in how they are set. 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. Behavioural tendencies suggest that public opinion, if and when tested again, may well [in opposition to business] prefer the uncertainty of a hard-Brexit No Deal to the sure losses of an ultra-soft deal.

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.

Instead, Remainers took those disaster scenarios as evidence that the UK was better off staying inside, while a hard core of Leavers dismissed them as ‘Project Fear’ or mere bumps in the new fast track’s entry-lane. 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. And with the UK’s negotiating goodwill stretched to breaking-point in the messy withdrawal, no future Prime Minister was likely to relish the re-engagement task ahead.

Alan Shipman is a Lecturer at The Open University. This article was previously published on OpenLearn in March 2019.

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