domingo, 2 de abril de 2017
May’s Battle of Britain truly begins
May’s Battle of Britain truly begins
PM is under pressure from hardcore Euroskeptics as well as Tory rebels who threaten to make common cause with Labour centrists.
By TOM MCTAGUE AND CHARLIE COOPER 3/30/17, 4:09 AM CET Updated 3/31/17, 10:30 AM CET
LONDON — With Article 50 triggered, the phony war over Brexit has come to an end. Now, the real fight in Westminster begins.
So far, British Prime Minister Theresa May has had it easy. Last year’s referendum on leaving the European Union united her Conservative Party behind her, resigning all but the most Europhile Tories to the inevitability of departure. Meanwhile, the opposition Labour Party was in disarray — split in two by Brexit.
Now that dynamic is set to reverse, as the internal divisions in the Conservative Party that pushed May’s predecessor David Cameron to call the Brexit referendum in the first place begin to resurface.
On one side, May is under pressure from hardcore Euroskeptics pushing for the cleanest possible break. On the other, she’s facing for the first time an opposition with a semblance of unity, with a small, but potentially influential, band of rebels in her own ranks threatening to make common cause with centrists in the Labour Party.
As long as Article 50 remained untriggered, May could hold off debate with claims of a democratic mandate and an explanation that “Brexit means Brexit.” As negotiations with the EU begin over the shape and pace of the U.K.’s withdrawal, the battle over what Brexit really means is about to kick off — and nowhere more so than among Conservative members of the British parliament.
Labour’s Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer, who will spearhead parliamentary scrutiny of May’s negotiation, said that the job of the opposition had entered a new phase.
May’s challenge will be to extract an outcome from her negotiations with Brussels that can survive a vote in the British parliament.
“The question now is of what future relationship we have with the EU,” he told POLITICO. “We can’t be members but we can be partners. Labour is very united on that, whereas the Conservative Party has a schism — on the backbenches and in the cabinet — between those who have always wanted to leave and those who want a closer relationship.
“The Prime Minister is now going to have to manage that over the next two years. If the PM wants to deliver a close, collaborative future she is going to have face down Brexiteers on her own side to do it.”
May’s challenge will be to extract an outcome from her negotiations with Brussels that can survive a vote in the British parliament, where she has a working majority of 17.
That gives her little room to maneuver.
Euroskeptic MPs who once held Cameron to ransom over Europe have coalesced into a 59-strong faction called the European Research Group, who organize on WhatsApp. Their goal: a clean divorce from the EU, even at the cost of failing to come to an agreement and crashing out of the Union.
So far, May’s stance has kept them happy. However, members are now watching the government’s negotiating position closely. A major issue for them is the Brexit divorce bill.
Continued membership of some EU programs would be tolerated, one senior Brexiteer said, while another confirmed that limited payments to the EU budget would be acceptable to Brexiteers.
However, a large Brexit bill, closer to the European Commission’s estimate of £50 billion, is unlikely to be tolerated. One senior Brexiteer suggested that even a bill as low as £20 billion would be rejected. “She’d never get it through parliament,” the MP said.
On May’s other flank, as many as 30 Tory MPs could vote against a final deal that did not avoid a “cliff-edge” scenario for the economy, according to pro-European Conservative officials who spoke to POLITICO on condition of anonymity.
Ahead of the formal start of the Brexit negotiations, Dominic Grieve, named by one minister as the leading intellectual light of the pro-EU Tory movement, fired a warning shot at the government. “It’s important in this process that the government should be able to carry the support of the entire Conservative Party,” he said.
‘The Blair proposition’
Advocates of soft Brexit were given a new lease of life two weeks ago when, of all people, Tony Blair offered up a simple formula for opposition. The former prime minister pointed to a commitment made by Brexit Secretary David Davis in the House of Commons in January that a post-Brexit free-trade and customs agreement will deliver “the exact same benefits” the U.K. already has, and urged the opposition to hold him to account for it.
“The Labour Party should have a very, very simple position on Brexit and I really don’t think it’s difficult at all,” an exasperated Blair told the BBC’s Andrew Marr show.
Since then, the attack line — which has come to be known as “the Blair proposition” — has been deployed prominently by Labour’s Brexit spokesman Starmer and by Nicky Morgan, a former Tory education secretary who is a leading figure in the pro-EU group Open Britain.
“Labour seems to have come to a position, which is good,” said a source close to the former prime minister, acknowledging that Blair’s attack on Davis may have been an “inspiration” to other groups.
Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former director of communications who remains in regular contact with the former leader, said the resistance to May’s government was more organized than ever before.
“What we’re seeing now is a whole lot more communication and coordination between people from different parties,” he said. “I’ve had Tory MPs and even cabinet ministers coming up to me saying ‘you’ve got to keep going with this, it’s going to be a catastrophe’ and telling me debate in Cabinet is slapped down if they raise any problems.
“There is definitely a feeling this can be stopped. Everyone is talking to everyone. After months of people flailing around, we’ve got a real sense of strategic purpose and confidence.”
Starmer had deploying the “exact same benefits” line before Blair’s intervention, but it has gained more traction in recent weeks, and on Monday he included it as one of six tests which the government must meet in its Brexit deal, or lose the support of Labour MPs.
A senior Labour source confirmed to POLITICO that the party intended to vote against the government rather than abstaining if it judges the deal to be unacceptable. Starmer — in a high-stakes game of bluff — does not believe May will be able to keep insisting that, if MPs reject her deal, the U.K. will leave the EU without one.
“It’s a political inevitability that rather than leave with no deal, May would have to go back to the negotiating table in that scenario,” insisted a senior Labour official.
Since the Scottish National Party and the Liberal Democrats are almost certain to vote against the government, that would leave May dependent on pro-EU Conservatives swinging behind her Brexit deal.
The prime minister has long expected the real battle to begin after Article 50, one senior government official said. “It’s been clear from the start that there would be a group of people who don’t agree with the direction of travel who would coalesce.”
The scale of the challenge has sparked high-level speculation about the need for a snap general election in late 2018 or early 2019 to give May the mandate to force through the final deal before Britain leaves the EU on March 29, 2019, according to senior Conservative MPs and officials. One Tory MP close to Philip Hammond said the chancellor himself has made the case in private that an election before 2020 might be needed.
In what is both an implicit acknowledgment of weakness and an olive branch extended to May’s pro-EU critics, the government has softened its messaging.
According to one well-placed Whitehall official familiar with the government’s thinking on Brexit, May will beat the path for the U.K.’s departure with a series of votes on individual issues including customs arrangements, immigration and the Great Repeal Bill transferring EU legislation into U.K. law, which would take the sting out of the final crunch vote.
Meanwhile, the government is trying to navigate a middle course. In what is both an implicit acknowledgment of weakness and an olive branch extended to May’s pro-EU critics, the government has softened its messaging.
Faced with evidence from focus groups that the word “Brexit” has started to poll badly, officials are being told to use the much softer “new partnership with Europe,” according to the official “Brexit Narrative” guidebook produced by David Davis’ department and distributed throughout government.
On Wednesday that was upped by the prime minister to a “deep and special partnership.” It is a phrase remarkably similar to the line now deployed by Labour, which is calling for a new deal with Brussels — “not a member of the EU, but a partnership alongside it.”