3 July 2018

Theresa May can’t deliver Brexit, but a new leader can


A strange and self-destructive consensus seems to have developed among many Tory MPs. Theresa May must go, because she is useless at fighting elections, but not until after Brexit. Let her complete the task of making a total and utter mess of Brexit, the most important national opportunity for decades. Then replace her and start preparing to answer to the electorate for her failure.

The logic is, I admit, a little hard to follow. A rabbit facing headlights must feel much the same.

This is a critical time for the success or failure of Brexit. Critical decisions are coming soon: whether to stay in the single market and customs union, both of which were rejected over a year ago; whether to give away our best negotiating card, the exit fee, in exchange for nothing more than a vague promise of a future trade deal; and whether we can persuade the EU to give us the vassal state transition May herself asked for.

On current form, these decisions will be made by the EU and forced upon us. The pattern is for them to lay down the law; for us to protest and put forward proposals, rejected as “unsatisfactory” and for us to “revise” them until they are what the EU originally demanded. Not a single concession has been made by the EU at any stage.

The Chequers conclave and the resulting white paper will consider only how much to surrender and how soon – for example, whether free movement should be in the white paper or kept back as a last minute bargaining chip. The reality is that as things stand we are headed for Brexit in name only.

But we can still make a success of Brexit. There are deals to be done. We can offer a Canada-style deal for goods and a separate agreement for the City, with the exit fee conditional on both. If they refuse, we revert to WTO rules. And if they want to erect a hard border, it’s their conscious choice to do so.

But we can’t do any of this with Theresa May in charge. She can’t change and the fact is that a robust approach needs a robust leader.

She has let the EU control the negotiations from the start. They halt talks every time they decide our progress is not satisfactory. They are effectively marking our homework rather than negotiating. Every time she responds by backing down and reworking her proposals.

Her “generous offers” meet no generosity of spirit from their side. They remain arrogant, contemptuous and unyielding. She remains silent or talks in platitudes, lacking the conviction to make her case strongly and bring either her party or the country with her. Brexiteers are leaderless and voiceless because she won’t let ministers take a firm position. We are negotiating with ourselves towards a position of subservience, subject to current and future EU rules but with no say on anything.

Why must Ireland be decided first, in defiance of all logic? Because the EU says so. They refuse to consider our workable “max fac” customs option because this would remove their leverage to tie the whole of the UK into the single market and customs union with no end date.  Why would the EU ever agree that another customs approach would work while we are still obeying their rules and paying their bills?

Ironically, the EU itself may be our best hope of avoiding utter capitulation.  Their arrogance may lead them to refuse the piecemeal concessions we keep making, and insist on total British surrender – single market, customs union, free movement, European Court of Justice, the lot. With Britain so obviously divided and the Prime Minister clearly determined on a deal at any price, why not go for broke? If they do, there is just a chance that Tory Brexiteers won’t stand for it. They are dispirited and confused, but perhaps not broken.

We need to change the game. In our current situation, only a walk-out could do it – rejecting all their guidelines and extreme demands, and leaving some of our own on the table. For the moment, we still have our trump card: the exit fee. They need it far more than we do. It’s not a huge sum in the overall context, but it would let them postpone a bitter internal battle over who will make up for the lost British contribution to the EU budget – who will pay more or receive less. With the EU, to postpone a crisis is to achieve success.

Indeed, the EU will only take us seriously if we very publicly and urgently prioritise preparations for a no-deal scenario. Funding must be released and systems tested, trialled and implemented. This should not be an insurmountable task, given the sort of technology and procedures we need are already in common use across the world.

But the Prime Minister has, much like her predecessor, left preparations dangerously late. A lot of work will be needed after March 2019, during the so-called transition period. However, we have a much better option than May’s “vassal state” proposal, which the EU may graciously permit, subject to a few more tough conditions.

WTO rules specifically provide for a transition period while free trade agreements are being negotiated. Negotiating parties can agree to zero tariffs and free access to services, on an interim basis. This would put the UK and the EU on an equal footing, both respecting WTO rules rather than EU rules, and the WTO, rather than the ECJ, ruling on any disputes.

It would be a bit of a culture shock for the EU, but if we firmly reject the vassal state option, their businesses and voters wouldn’t stand for a Götterdämmerung approach, particularly with Donald Trump threatening so many of their industries. Someone has to fold, and a free trade deal would be the lesser of two evils for them.

None of this is going to happen under Theresa May. She is not, by temperament, capable of such a robust change of direction. She is cautious, timid, uncommunicative and completely incapable of providing the leadership needed to rally and direct the country at such a critical moment. Worse, her instinct is to stick as closely as she can to the Olly Robbins’ proposals and the comforting shelter of the EU.

Tory Brexiteers have tamely accepted surrender after surrender, and allowed our no-deal preparations to be starved of funds. Only by them challenging her leadership can we avoid both subservience to the EU and, worse for them personally, losing the next election. Tory membership votes would elect a Brexiteer to replace her, and how could any of them do a worse job than Theresa May? The headlights are approaching, it’s time to change direction before it’s too late.

Ken Worthy is a former management consultant who has worked in the private sector and across various government departments.