Full time approaches, Brexit remains Brexit
From Dr Sarah Lieberman – Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations
Understanding the events of this week may be key to understanding the whole Brexit debacle. The key players remain the same, the key arguments remain the same, and two years on the state of play remains the same. The EU’s negotiating position also remains the same. The Four Freedoms –freedom of movement of: people, services, goods and capital – can still not be split. Yes, the UK is welcome to negotiate a departure from the European Union, but no the UK cannot take the parts of the Union that it likes, for free, and abandon those aspects of the Union it dislikes. The Chequers Agreement / Statement / Cabinet-destroying-brouhaha is therefore nothing more than yet another suggestion by the increasingly desperate government. This must now be passed to the Article 50 negotiators in Brussels who are waiting for the UK to propose something which does not involve the EU abandoning its four founding freedoms and the UK accessing the common market without paying to do so.
This is what the government agreed at Chequers: the UK would retain free-trade with Europe and would therefore also retain regulatory alignment with the EU. However, this was agreed only among UK Conservative Cabinet Ministers: it has not been presented to the EU’s heads of states, nor to the negotiators who will advise on its legality.
Furthermore, it turns out that Cabinet Ministers did not agree. The Prime Minister stipulated that the time for Ministerial freedom was over and that Collective Responsibility (where the Government speaks as one – one of the oldest and most important unwritten norms of the British constitution) must now be applied. However, the resignations of David Davis the Minister for Brexit and Boris Johnson the Foreign Secretary demonstrate lack of unity. And, under the principle of collective responsibility, you agree, or you go.
But still, puzzles abound. If Davis and Johnson knew they could not accept the ‘soft’ integrationist Brexit it proposed, why did they put their name to the agreement before resigning? If May cannot demand Collective Responsibility what now for her leadership? And what about Brexit… we only have eight months?
It would be comforting to see this week as part of a grand strategy for departure from which the UK would emerge flag waving and stronger but in all honesty the government does not look that organised. On the plus side, neither Davis nor Johnson will be greatly missed. Davis has since appointment failed to negotiate with Europe and failed to answer the most basic of questions relating to European regulation, UK sectoral risk assessments and Brexit strategy. Johnson, who held a position that requires diplomacy and understanding has shown neither trait and has embarrassed the country far and wide.
Why sign? Perhaps they wanted to leave the meeting. Perhaps they didn’t read the document. Perhaps they didn’t understand the jargon. Perhaps they are triggered by confrontation.
Why then resign? Although the two are bundled together in a mega cabinet confusion, their modus operandi differ greatly. Davis is a long-term Tory MP with strong Brexit beliefs. His resignation letter suggested he believes in a harder Brexit than the agreement proposed (and clearly his job is impossible given his boss keeps changing direction on his brief). Johnson on the other hand is a career politician who resigned because Brexit is an economically unviable albatross for which he is responsible (who remembers the bus?) And what for Theresa May? If she cannot enforce Collective Responsibility within the Cabinet then things do not look rosy. This week has demonstrates that she has neither the power to align her government Ministers to do her bidding, nor does she have the answer the big question, what to do about Brexit?
We have eight months, a divided government, an opposition with no united position, a PM who cannot galvanise her cabinet and a general public whose only current concern revolves around eleven sportsmen and a song from 1996. If you understand this week, you have the key to Brexit. If you don’t… well join the club.