Theresa May’s sequence of strategic errors has rendered impossible a soft Brexit. By adopting red lines consistent solely with a hard Brexit, while denying herself the option of walking out without a deal, the Prime Minister engineered the current stalemate. Now, Mrs May is about to bequeath a poisoned chalice to her successor.
The next Tory Prime Minister must, to begin with, avoid any temptation to promise to go back to Brussels to renegotiate Mrs May’s Withdrawal Agreement. Such a negotiation would serve only to deepen the sense of humiliation bestowed upon the good people of Britain as they watch a third successive Prime Minister return from Brussels dejected and empty-handed.
That such a renegotiation will end in failure is beyond doubt. Over the next few months, EU leaders will be locked in a major tussle over the distribution of three major European presidencies: Commission, Council and Central Bank. President Macron’s determination to block Manfred Weber, Chancellor Merkel’s candidate for the Commission presidency, has already stirred up serious tensions between Paris and Berlin. These have been magnified by the new arithmetic in the European Parliament which, for the first time, requires a four-way deal, one that includes not only the hitherto dominant European People’s Party and the waning Socialists & Democrats but also the Greens and the liberals.
In this context, a new British Prime Minister arriving in Brussels to renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement will be treated as a nuisance and sent home packing whatever the economic cost to the EU of a hard Brexit in October. Confusing the fact that it is in the interests of the EU to complete a renegotiation with an incentive of its leaders to complete it would be the next Prime Minister’s first fatal error.
Instead, the new Tory leader should seek Labour’s consent to stage a general election immediately. Jeremy Corbyn will, undoubtedly, accept the challenge and a joint first step will have been taken toward a potentially cathartic people’s vote. As long as the new Prime Minister avoids a futile Brussels re-negotiation, the two main parties will be forced to put unambiguous proposals to the voters so as to regain their predominance from the Brexit Party and the Liberal Democrats respectively.
The new Tory leader will have no choice, given the emergence of the Brexit Party, but to promise unconditionally and immediately to take the UK out of the EU prior to any renegotiation of the Withdrawal Agreement or the political declaration regarding the future relationship. The merit of such a commitment is twofold. First, it does not depend on the kindness of EU negotiators. Secondly, it can be backed with a credible prediction that the EU will, once the UK has left without an agreement, be motivated – perhaps for the first time – radically to rethink its position.
While the new Prime Minister will not be able to convince the electorate, during the election campaign, that EU officials and national leaders will reopen Mrs May’s deal while the Article 50 clock is ticking away, she or he will be able to point out that, once the UK steps out, the Commission has new emergency powers to freeze all customs checks, airline disruption etc – powers that it will most certainly use. That will also be the right moment for London to propose a fresh negotiation that folds into one the exit deal with an agreement for the future relationship.
Turning to the Labour Party, Mr Corbyn’s team will also be forced to insert into the Labour manifesto an unambiguous plan regarding Brexit and a European strategy that chimes with its broader vision for the UK – a Labour Agenda for Europe, as I would recommend it is labelled. This would entail embracing a “radical remain” policy (of staying in the EU while attempting to democratise its institutions and steer them toward a pro-labour stance), possibly with the addition of a confirmatory public vote.
A general election fought on the basis of this choice promises to clear the air after three years of standstill, humiliation and broken promises. It will also allow the two main parties to reclaim the mantle from single-issue parties that have risen in the polls magnificently due to Brexit’s standstill and despite their demonstrable incapacity to govern a country that is in desperate need of a serious debate on its business model, its social policy, even its constitutional arrangements.
An election is the obvious next step once a new Tory leader is installed. Democracy may well surprise us all by its remarkable capacity occasionally to provide clarity as it dissolves even the most debilitating of standoffs.
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