Britain’s Theresa May scrambled Wednesday to sell to her Cabinet a draft Brexit divorce agreement British negotiators concluded after months of wrangling with their European Union counterparts.
But the 500-page draft remains a source of deep dispute within Britain’s ruling Conservative party and also in the country’s parliament, which will have the final say on whether to approve it.
As news emerged Tuesday that a text had been agreed, hardline Brexiteers lined up to attack the proposed agreement with former British foreign minister Boris Johnson, who resigned earlier this year, urging other ministers to join him in opposing the terms of the deal. Britain’s main opposition parties also announced their disapproval of the deal, which has not even been published yet.
The agreement, if approved by the Cabinet and subsequently the British parliament, would see Britain remaining in a customs union for several years with the EU after it formally exits the bloc in March, but with an unclear legal path to quitting the customs arrangement while a fuller trade deal is negotiating.
Remaining in a customs union allows Britain and the EU to avoid introducing customs checks along the border separating Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and would also allow “frictionless trade” between Britain and its erstwhile partners in the EU.
But critics say it would reduce Britain to the status of a “vassal state” by requiring it to accept EU rules and regulations without having any say about them. It would also block Britain from signing trade deals with other countries while a trade agreement is concluded with the EU, which itself could take three or four years or even longer. Reaching trade deals independently with non-EU countries was a key selling point of Brexit for many who voted nearly two years ago in a referendum to relinquish EU membership.
“This is just about as bad as it could possibly be,” Johnson fumed Tuesday to reporters in the corridors of the British House of Commons. Other Brexiteers joined him to denounce the proposed deal, one they are determined to sabotage and which runs, they say, contrary to the Conservative Party manifesto they fought an election on a year.
“For the first time in a thousand years this place, this parliament will not have a say over the laws which govern this country. It is quite an incredible state of affairs,” Johnson added.
“She hasn’t so much struck a deal as surrendered to Brussels… the UK will be a slave state,” said Conservative lawmaker Jacob Rees-Mogg.
Conservatives’ future at stake
The stakes couldn’t be higher for Theresa May. The draft agreement, May’s fate as Prime Minister and the longevity of the Conservative government are all hanging in the balance. The consequences of the process to get the draft agreement approved are difficult to guess and could end up sinking May, the Conservative government and even Brexit itself. “I don’t think anyone knows, to be truthful,” said Labour lawmaker Chuka Umunna.
May’s minority government relies on the votes in the House of Commons on a handful of lawmakers from a quirky Protestant-based Unionist party, which is also opposed to the draft deal.
Without the backing of the Democratic Unionist Party, and faced with an inevitable revolt by dozen of Conservative lawmakers, May will need to persuade opposition lawmakers to break with their party leaderships by arguing her deal is the best Britain can get.
But an increasing number of opposition lawmakers are jumping on the bandwagon of the People’s Vote movement, which is calling for a second Brexit referendum. Recent opinion polls suggest a majority of voters now, especially in traditional Labour heartlands, many of which voted in June 2016 for Brexit, now want Britain to retain EU membership, fearing the economic fallout from departure.
But even before seeking next month parliamentary backing for the draft customs union deal, May has to persuade her cabinet to back her — and that is not even a sure thing. On Tuesday — ahead of a full cabinet meeting called for Wednesday afternoon — May took a leaf out of the playbook of her Conservative predecessor Margaret Thatcher, who in 1990 called in ministers one by one to place them on the spot and demand their support. However, the tactic backfired on Thatcher and she was forced to resign.
Former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith predicts May’s days will be numbered if she fails to reverse course and decides not to pursue a cleaner break from the EU. “If the cabinet agrees it, the party certainly won’t,” he said. Conservative lawmakers who want Britain to remain in the EU are also publicly opposing the draft agreement, placing May in a tight political vice.
Leave-supporting ministers were coming under intense pressure from hardline Brexiteers in the hours leading up to the cabinet meeting to reject the deal. They pointed to a leaked EU document outlining a strategy to force Britain to accept an almost permanent alignment with its rules and regulations governing state aid, environmental protection and workers’ rights.
In a note to EU ambassadors, Sabine Weyand, a deputy EU negotiator, said the customs union will form the basis for Britain’s future trade deal with the bloc. “They must align their rules but the EU will retain all the controls. UK wants a lot more from the future relationship, so EU retains leverage,” she wrote.