[guest post by JVW]
There is a very interesting piece on National Review Online today by John O’Sullivan which recounts the trials and tribulations of Theresa May and her Tory Party as they attempt to negotiate Britain’s exit from the European Union, demanded by British voters two summers ago in a bold move that presaged the election of Donald Trump across the Atlantic later that fall. The piece is long, and chock full of details, but let me see if I can pull some of the more interesting tidbits here. The lede paragraph:
A massive political and constitutional crisis is gathering pace in Britain. It began earlier this year, perhaps as early as February, when Prime Minister Theresa May began to run her own private policy on Brexit through officials in Downing Street and the Cabinet Office — a policy that was different from, and arguably opposite to, the Brexit policy that had the approval of the cabinet and the public. But it emerged that something unorthodox might be happening only two weeks ago, when reports began to circulate in Whitehall and Westminster that the prime minister would advise a Chequers cabinet meeting on the next Friday to choose a hitherto unknown “third way” rather than two earlier options for leaving the European Union Customs Union.
According to O’Sullivan, PM May then assured the EU that there was no third way plan under development, all the while preparing to browbeat her Tory allies, gathered at a party retreat at Chequers (the British Prime Minister’s version of Camp David), into adopting the plan. At this nefarious task, she was apparently successful. O’Sullivan describes how the retreat went down:
Isolate them in a remote location, cut off their escape, take away their phones, give them complex bureaucratic papers to read, cut the time for reading short, examine them on their reading, confuse them, mock any mistakes they make, demand they sign the document, threaten them with non-personhood if they refuse, and if they do refuse, tell them the decision has already been made by the Party and that their refusal is meaningless. It was a brilliant technique — call it Applied Stockholm Syndrome — and it worked. Most of those present nodded smilingly and signed; some were reluctant but they signed too in order not to spoil the occasion, and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson even proposed a toast to Big Sister. Happy to be still in power, they all got into their cars and returned to London.
Thus, this third way plan took shape. Britain would leave the EU Customs Union, but then immediately strike a common territory deal with it; Britain would leave the single market, but continue to adhere to its regulations; Britain would leave the European Court of Justice, but British courts would be instructed to follow the European Court’s precedents. When buyer’s remorse set in among her grumpy cabinet, May suddenly saw key members resign. O’Sullivan unpacks the deception practiced along the way:
Freed from collective responsibility and angered by May’s duplicitous treatment, both [Brexit Secretary Dave] Davis and [Junior Brexit Minister Steve] Baker charged that, in effect, she had set up Davis’s Department for Exiting the EU (DexEU) as a kind of Potemkin ministry to make it appear that Brexit was going ahead while a small cabal of officials — notably her chief civil-service adviser, Olly Robbins, in Downing Street — negotiated an entirely different outcome. Conducting such an exercise in deception meant such things as reaching agreements with Davis intended to be diluted or broken outright or even lying to Davis’s face. [. . .]
Yet there was a paradoxical result of this dishonesty: DexEU ministers and officials in fact produced a white paper on how to achieve a Brexit that meant Brexit. [. . . ] And of course, when the cabinet adopted [the Chequers] plan without open dissent that Friday, the general (and largely unconsidered) assumption was that the rival DexEU white paper would sink deep into the files and never emerge.
That’s why the chief Remainer talking point after Chequers was that the Leavers had had two years to come up with a Brexit plan and failed to do so. Since they couldn’t put up, they should shut up. This argument was everywhere on television, newspapers, and the Web, and some intelligent people claimed to find it powerful.
In other words, according to O’Sullivan, Prime Minister May treated Brexit as a boat race from the get go, with the desired outcome always one which was Brexit in name only and didn’t really untangle ties to Brussels. But once Steve Baker took the DexEU outline to the British website ConHome which published it in 24 parts, the government’s arguments that no other viable alternatives had been presented were exposed as bogus.
But I promised in the post’s title that President Trump would make an appearance, so here he is:
All this created an atmosphere at Westminster of instability, uncertainty, even chaos, and right on cue Donald Trump arrived. There followed three days of diplomatic pratfalls, insults, inappropriate political interventions, minor court discourtesies, apologies, and at last charm offensives until the Donald left a relieved Theresa May for Helsinki. [. . .] But it left an impact on two serious matters. Trump managed to get the Europeans to concede that this time they’d have to hike their defense spending. Second, he said — and despite all the blunders and apologies he didn’t retract the statement — that May’s version of Brexit was not compatible with the U.S.–U.K. free-trade deal he was offering. People took that on board: Obama may have threatened, but May was actually sending Britain to “the back of the queue.” It was yet one more sign that her version of Brexit was not meeting her red lines, what people had voted for, or what Brexiteers in her own party plainly wanted.
Mrs. May and her conservatives have now sunk to the point where Labour, led by the execrable Jeremy Corbyn, has a four-point lead in preference polls. Although the Prime Minister earnestly declares no compromises on Britain’s exit from the customs union, single market, and European court, very few Britons take her seriously. And according to O’Sullivan, she is getting quite close to being dragged into a party leadership challenge, so it’s possible that we might yet see a Churchillian return from Boris. One silver lining, according to O’Sullivan, is that Brexit now turns out to be more popular among Tory MPs than it previously had been, so a sensible and sincere plan for leaving the EU might still be attainable.
This is the part where I encourage you to read the entire piece.