More than two years after the UK voted to leave the EU, the government is still negotiating with itself, rather than with Europe. The approaching deadline to reach a Brexit deal has led Theresa May to stage a Chequers lock-in until her riven cabinet unites.
The Prime Minister may, of course, fail. No.10 has wisely prepared for the possibility of cabinet resignations and a confidence vote in May (triggered by 48 Tory MPs – 15 per cent – privately requesting one).
But were one or more of the Brexiteers (David Davis, Liam Fox, Boris Johnson) to finally walk out, it would be to little avail. The forces pushing the UK towards a soft Brexit – the EU’s negotiating stance and the absence of a Tory majority – would remain the same. Brussels has repeatedly warned Britain that it cannot retain the benefits of EU membership (economic access) without the costs (a loss of sovereignty), and that it will not permit the creation of a hard Irish border.
The Brexiteers contend that the UK’s failure to credibly prepare for “no deal” – and the chaos that would result – has weakened its hand. This, as so often, is merely wishful thinking. But even if it were not, the debate is now redundant. The government’s true stance has long been that a bad deal is better than no deal – and it cannot now be changed. May’s Brexiteer critics had two chances to seize the leadership – in June 2016 and in June 2017 – and missed them both.
Cabinet resignations, or the displacement of May, would not alter the parliamentary arithmetic. Indeed, a Brexiteer leader would only embolden Remainers. There is no majority for a no deal, nor for the creation of a hard Irish border: MPs will not tolerate one between the UK and Ireland, the DUP (who the Tories depend on) will not tolerate one between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. To avoid a border, the UK must remain in a customs union with the EU and in the single market for goods (or, if the EU maintains its opposition to “cherry picking”, the whole of the latter).
As some Leavers are now grasping, the great irony of Brexit is that it has left the UK more subservient to the EU than ever. When Brussels drew up the divorce proceedings it did so with the intention of maximising control. No member state, it assumed, would be so reckless as to invoke Article 50.
The withdrawal deal that Britain aims to reach must be approved by at least 72 per cent of member states, representing 65 per cent of the EU’s population. The two-year deadline for leaving can only be extended by unanimous agreement. Even the much-maligned European Parliament has a vote.
Cabinet resignations would do nothing to change these political realities. And Conservative MPs doubt whether the Brexiteers have the stomach to quit. “They’re far too craven, supine and greedy for office ever to leave their positions on a point of principle,” a Tory Leaver told me recently.
May’s leadership further allows them to perpetuate the myth that Brexit is being “done badly”. The problem, rather, is that it cannot be done well. May did not choose to treat Brexit as an act of a damage limitation – rather than a liberating opportunity – she simply recognised it as one.
Tory Leavers ever more resemble Marxist critics of the Soviet Union: the problem is merely the practice, not the theory. However the matter is eventually resolved, one thing is certain: the Brexiteers will always find someone else to blame.