Theresa May’s has spent nearly every waking moment since leaving university thinking about her Conservative Party to which she has devoted all her life, writes Denis MaShane.
Denis MacShane is the UK’s former Minister for Europe and author of “Brexit: How Britain Left Europe”, published by IB Tauris.
So at her first party conference since becoming Prime Minister without anyone voting for her , and with a majority of her ministers and MPs far from certain that isolating Britain from Europe is a desirable policy, she is focusing on party management above all else.
Mrs May announced that Article 50 negotiations would begin next March as they have to be over before the European Parliament elections in May 2019.
She also said Britain would no longer be bound by the European Court of Justice even if it has been the European Court of Human Rights that caused her most difficulties over deporting people she consider undesirable when she was Home Secretary.
The ECJ reference seems to imply that Britain will leave the EU Customs Union and she expressly said Britain would not follow a Norwegian or Swiss model.
So it sounds like a total rupture with the EU Single Market and the arrival of work permits, quotas, and even entry visas for European citizens.
The Hard Brexit camp are triumphant but former Tory Ministers are publicly coming out to say the damage to the UK economy and wealth is not worth giving satisfaction to Nigel Farage. Nick Gibb MP, a respected Tory right-winger dismissed the 3 Brexit ministers – Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox – as “three blind mice”.
Funny perhaps but worrying for Mrs May who has a thin majority in the Commons and has not been elected by her own party. The internal Tory and wider Parliamentary manoeuvring over Brexit is just beginning.
The markets greeted Mrs May announcement with the pound falling to its lowest level against the dollar since 1983 and the pound also weaker against the Euro.
Her Sunday announcement that following the end of the Article 50 negotiations – assuming they finish with Britain leaving the EU – there will be an Act of Parliament that repeals the 1972 Act which took Britain into the European Economic Community has been overtaken by headlines about her hard Brexit speech.
It buys Mrs May time. Her spin doctors have tried to give the bill some status by calling it the “Great” Repeal bill but placing an adjective in front of piece of undrafted legislation is as silly as David Cameron’s claim he had “reformed” the European Union with the four concessions he obtained in February in the run-up to his plebiscite.
Two big unanswered questions
Mrs May carefully avoided the two key issues related to the UK and Europe. These are whether the UK will seek to stay in the EU Customs Union or have a total rupture with the EU Single Market and whether the UK will pass legislation that imposes work permits, quotas or entry visas on EU citizens.
Every EU head of government had said on the record that if their citizens face such discrimination Britain cannot have today’s full access to the Single Market. This, in turn, leads to a massive loss of income for the City and companies like Nissan saying they will relocate from Britain if they cannot export their cars to European customers on today’s terms.
Mrs May made one important announcement – again to assuage her more rabid anti-European ministers and MPs – that the Article 50 negotiations will start in March. This means Brexit will feature large in the French presidential election as Marine Le Pen will insist on a Frexit referendum in France, and her opponent will have to be hard on issues moving like UK frontier controls to British soil rather than in Calais.
Mrs May is most insular British prime minister since the 1930s and has never shown any interest in the politics of other countries like America, China – which she visited for the first time at the G20! – and certainly not Europe, so she probably attaches no importance to the French elections.
Once the Tory Party conference is over both the House of Commons and the House or Lords will seek to reassert some control over the unfolding of Brexit politics. The key referendum slogan was ‘taking back control’ but so far Mrs May and her three Brexit ministers have insisted that they alone control what happens now with no role for parliament.
It is unlikely that parliament can be frozen out in the way David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson desire. Mrs May has a small majority and Scottish and Northern Irish MPs will want to know what Brexit means for their voters.
The Labour party too, if it has any sense, will want to harry and challenge the government on its ultra-secretive and unaccountable approach to handling Brexit.
So while Mrs May’s grandiloquent announcement of an Act to take Britain out of Europe makes headlines it is only designed to get her through this delicate week of open and angry debate in a divided, uncertain party. The veteran Brexit ideologue – the Sunday Telegraph’s EU commentator, Christopher Booker – is calling for a European Economic Area status for the UK which of course, de facto, means accepting all EU laws, freedom of movement, and paying to the EU budget.
As the autumn chills settle on British politics, Brexit is going to hot up