Argument

‘Take Back Control’? Brexit Is Tearing Britain Apart

Prime Minister Theresa May thinks it’s her duty to deliver Brexit, but the outcome could entail splitting her party and impoverishing Britain.

A man protests against Brexit outside the Houses of Parliament in London July 5. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
A man protests against Brexit outside the Houses of Parliament in London July 5. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

When U.S. President Donald Trump half-suggested that he should postpone his visit to Britain because of the country’s state of turmoil, he was for once guilty of understatement. Since the 2016 referendum on leaving the European Union, turmoil has been Britain’s default setting — and it looks likely to get worse rather than better. It has taken British Prime Minister Theresa May all that time to achieve even a modicum of agreement in her cabinet on the negotiating stance to be put to the EU. When she finally produced her plan, it precipitated the resignation of David Davis, the minister in charge of Brexit negotiations. Within hours of Davis resigning so, too, did Boris Johnson, the uber-ambitious foreign secretary; he could not bear to be outflanked as the hero of the Euroskeptics. A weakened but persistent May remains in her job only because neither side of the Brexit argument can agree on who should succeed her.

Virtually every other function of government outside Brexit has been sidelined. Both major parties are split on Europe and the referendum vote that was called by the careless former Prime Minister David Cameron — not out of national interest but as a tool of Conservative Party management — to help put an end to the bickering over Europe. Instead, the bickering has intensified; it has brought a sourness, a sheer nastiness to national politics that has never been seen before.

There simply is no Brexit model that satisfies the Conservative Party’s right wing; the cabinet; Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, on which May depends for a parliamentary majority; and the Conservative members of Parliament who voted — along with 48 percent of the country — for Britain to remain in the EU. The Brexiteers, including Johnson, Davis, and another would-be candidate for the Tory leadership, the backbencher Jacob Rees-Mogg, never believed that they would win the referendum. They have never offered their own detailed alternative to May’s plans. Cameron handed them a surprise bonus, and they are determined to hang on to every shred of it. Anything that falls short of their referendum slogan “Take Back Control” would be seen as a treasonous denial of the people’s will; they see themselves as the only legitimate interpreters of that will. Successful negotiations require both sides to make concessions, but anything May does with a view to achieving a deal with the EU the Brexiteers seize upon as a betrayal.

It all goes back to the Conservative Party’s deposition of Margaret Thatcher after she won the party three elections. Alarmed by her increasingly shrill denunciations of the EU, Thatcher’s fellow ministers feared she would lose them the next vote. They dumped her and were never forgiven by the party’s right, for whom opposition to the EU has ever since been a badge of loyalty to be worn in celebration of the great days of Thatcherism. Thatcher was a politician who made the weather, a leader who made a real difference taming the unions, winning back the Falklands, and negotiating back a chunk of what she called “our money” from Brussels. But she also turned the Conservative Party into an ideological party as much interested in winning arguments as winning elections — and her successor is now paying for that.

The Conservative Party has traditionally been the business party, and as a result opinion polls have usually found it rated as the best party to run the economy — an important advantage. But lately, as business chiefs have implored May and her colleagues to get their negotiating act together and to save jobs and inward investment by staying in as much of the single European market as possible, the Conservative Brexiteers have dismissed such advice as the voice of white flag-waving “Remoaners.” They insist it is all propaganda, calling it “Project Fear.” While former Conservative Prime Minister John Major was warning his party to be concerned not just with the “will of the people” as expressed in the referendum but with the “well-being of the people,” Johnson’s reaction was to say, “Fuck business.” Even his replacement as foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, claimed it was “completely inappropriate” for Airbus to comment on Brexit negotiations despite the aerospace giant generating more than $2 billion in taxation and employing 14,000 people. As other Conservatives pointed out, Labour’s leader, the left-winger Jeremy Corbyn, will always win any contest with the voters in criticizing business.

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Many Brexiteers greeted the referendum by insisting that a competitive Britain — freed from Brussels’s regulatory shackles — would strike deals all over an eager world; there was nothing to fear from the cold, fresh breeze of competition. Instead, Britain faces a protectionist president in the United States and a growing world trade war that looks a rather less enticing prospect. Concern about immigration was also a major factor in the referendum “no” vote. The Leavers promised to take back control of British borders, implying a major cut in the number of immigrants to the country. As a former home secretary who had failed to keep previous Conservative manifesto promises to reduce the number of immigrants to tens of thousands a year — rather than hundreds of thousands — May long seemed obsessed with the issue. The fact that free movement of labor between EU countries is a condition of single market membership was why she rapidly insisted that Britain would leave it. But all along, the number of immigrants to Britain from the rest of the world, over which ministers have full control, far outnumbered those from the EU.

Immigration is an essential driver of the British economy. A recent Migration Advisory Committee report consulting more than 400 employers found that most worried about any restriction of their access to EU labor. They consider EU workers more motivated, skilled, and willing to work unsocial hours. In social care, health care, and the hospitality industry, the proportion of the workforce from the European Economic Area (EEA) has tripled since 1997. May has learned on the job: she has come to realize that the easy transfer of workers across borders is vital to modern global commerce. So now she talks of an “appropriate labor mobility framework.” Johnson grumbles that that means she will make further concessions on EU immigration.

With Johnson returned to the backbenches (and no doubt to lucrative columns in Brexit-supporting media), life will only get harder for May. But in trying to strike a deal on Britain’s withdrawal from Europe, the prime minister hasn’t had to deal just with enemies within. The EU has been angered by how long it has taken her to frame what she wants. It is in no mood to give a good deal to the first country to quit the organization. And pettiness isn’t confined to the Brexiteers. By saying it will exclude a Brexited Britain from the Galileo satellite system and EU arrest warrants, the EU is showing it, too, can bite off its own fingers. Nor will May receive any help against her Brexiteers from a Labour Party led by Corbyn.

Though Labour is theoretically now a pro-European party, and though he talks of a “new and strong relationship” with the single market, Corbyn has spent most of his career criticizing the EU as a capitalist conspiracy. Labour is not a party campaigning for a soft Brexit and ready to vote accordingly. It is as badly divided as the Tories. We recently saw the biggest Labour rebellion of this Parliament: Corbyn told his MPs to abstain from participating in a key vote, but 90 of them defied him. Seventy-five voted for the United Kingdom to stay in the EEA, and 15 voted to pull out of the EU. Labour will go on calling for the unachievable so as to be able to vote against the ruling government. Oppositions exist to oppose: Corbyn’s aim is to see the maximum possible mess in the hope of provoking an early general election.

Turmoil will continue. Many Brexiteers would clearly prefer no deal to any deal. Britain’s departure from the EU is being driven by a prime minister who clearly now accepts the advice of many economic authorities and leading business figures that it will harm the country but sees it nonetheless as her duty to deliver Brexit. She will either impoverish the country or split the Conservative Party forever. She could well do both.

Robin Oakley is a former Political Editor of the BBC and before that of The Times newspaper. He was also for many years the European Political Editor for CNN. He is the author of several book on politics and horse racing.

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