What is David Davis’s job? The simple answer is he’s the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union. The more accurate answer is that Davis’s job, at least when he was first appointed, was to bolster Theresa May’s credentials among Conservative MPs as a guarantor of the referendum result. He owes his elevation to the fact that he is part of a small group – which includes Chris Grayling, another minister struggling to master his departmental brief – of Conservative politicians who backed Theresa May’s leadership ambitions from an early stage and are long-term supporters of the Brexit cause.
Davis’s appointment and continuation in office sums up the Mayite problem with the Brexit negotiations: the priority isn’t finessing the United Kingdom’s exit on the best possible terms, but keeping the Conservative Party intact and united enough to make a decent fist of the next election. As a consequence, Downing Street’s red lines for Brexit have no relation to either the desired shape of the British economy after we leave the EU or what is acceptable to the remaining EU27. Instead, they are about somehow finding a way to unite all Conservative MPs.
In truth, anything that unites the Conservative Party would not satisfy the UK’s negotiating partners. The trade-off is simple: either a low level of access to European markets and a high level of regulatory freedom, or a high level of access and a low level of regulatory freedom. But neither option can unite the Tories, which is why May’s troubled government instead shuttles between a series of fantasies.
May is right, however, to think that only a Brexit deal that unites all 317 Conservative MPs and the ten DUP MPs who keep her in office can pass the House of Commons. The SNP, Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and the sole Green MP, Caroline Lucas, have already resolved to vote against any deal that takes the UK out of the single market. The trouble is that because May can’t unite her MPs, she faces parliamentary defeat on 12 June, when the EU Withdrawal Bill returns to the Commons from the Lords, where it has been heavily amended.
May’s difficulty is that unlike prime ministers past, she can’t bully rebels into line with the threat of a general election. The Fixed Term Parliaments Act took that power out of the hands of the prime minister and put it into those of MPs. That’s not without its upside for Downing Street, as David Cameron showed in 2013 when he was defeated on whether or not the UK should intervene in the Syrian civil war, an outcome that once might have forced an early election. Instead, Cameron carried on as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
This all means that Conservative Remainers know they can vote against Theresa May’s Brexit strategy on a Tuesday and then, if need be, vote to sustain her in office on a Wednesday. Although a powerful prime minister can, when the going is good, ask and receive an early election from MPs, as Theresa May did in April last year, a weak prime minister can’t force her backbenchers into one. In any case, there is little reason to believe a fresh election would produce a House of Commons much different from its current composition.
As for the Labour Party, it has less a Brexit strategy than an objective: to defeat the Conservatives in parliament and to trigger an election as soon as possible. Jeremy Corbyn and many of his key advisers are longstanding Eurosceptics but they know how to count, which means they are fully aware that their only realistic prospect of defeating the government is over Brexit. That has already compelled Labour to support staying within a customs union, and that same logic will likely mean the party will find an excuse to vote against whatever deal Theresa May cobbles together. Ideologically, Corbyn is sympathetic towards Brexit and intellectually he is clear that the referendum result must be honoured. John Smith, Labour leader from 1992 until his death in 1994, was an ideological supporter of the Maastricht Treaty but still found a reason to vote against it to create difficulties for John Major’s government.
Labour’s attitude to Brexit recalls the old saw about not knowing much about art but knowing what you like: Labour doesn’t know much about Brexit but it knows what it dislikes. Which means that Corbyn can unite the party’s divided MPs on voting against things: against the government’s attempt to conduct the Brexit negotiations without reference to the House of Commons; against the single market; and against the final deal. The second you start to ask Labour MPs what they want instead of the government’s proposals, however, the cracks begin to show.
Much ink has been spilt about Corbyn’s Euroscepticism, and it’s true that his leadership does keep a large chunk of Labour MPs from voting in a pro-European fashion. But another large chunk of Labour MPs are voting with the Corbyn line not because of the party whip but because it fits their own principles. Pro-Leave Labour MPs Caroline Flint, John Mann or John Spellar don’t have the same media profile as Chuka Umunna, Alison McGovern or Owen Smith, who advocate a soft Brexit or none at all, but they do have the same ability to vote in the Commons. Labour can agree to block the Conservatives, but it can’t easily agree an alternative way forward.
And that’s why May’s problems are unlikely to go away and are highly likely to get worse: her Brexit proposals do not pass muster with the rest of the EU and will struggle to get through the House of Commons. But any alternative proposals will also struggle to pass parliament as it is presently constituted while an early election, as well as being outside May’s control, is unlikely to break the deadlock, and could indeed deepen it.
This article appears in the 06 Jun 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Nuclear Family