The Conservative opposition undermining Theresa May’s Brexit plan does not have an alternative political proposal. That does not prevent Eurosceptic hardliners from undermining the governments’ negotiating position.
Conservative Party faces a split
In a statement to the Financial Times published on Tuesday, the Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg admitted that his pro-Brexit European Research Group has failed to draft an alternative to the governments’ Brexit proposal. Embarrassingly, he admits that a policy paper was drafted but failed to secure a consensus.
However, the group remains united in its opposition to the only British negotiating position on the table. The former minister and ardent Eurosceptic Steven Baker warned Theresa May on Monday that her 140-page Brexit roadmap is opposed by 80 MPs, who are ready to vote it down.
Baker warned May that if she attempted to push through with her proposal, counting on Labour votes, she would lead the party to a “catastrophic split.”
In a letter to the Mail on Sunday, the former foreign secretary Boris Johnson took a step further to compare Theresa May’s Brexit roadmap to a “suicide vest,” wrapped around the British constitution, and Brussels holding the detonator. Many of his colleagues, including Leave campaigners, have found the simile inappropriate.
Amidst this political meltdown in London, Michel Barnier told an audience in Slovenia on Monday that a Brexit deal could be made within eight weeks “if” all sides exhibited “pragmatism and realism.” Theresa May followed up on this statement, reasserting her governments’ commitment to a Brexit deal by October.
The Conservatives will hold their annual conference from September 30 to October 3rd. Hardline Conservatives are calling on Theresa May to scrap the agreed “backstop” on Northern Ireland, which commits the UK to a no-border policy in Northern Ireland. They call for a hardline negotiating position, which would put the onus on Dublin and Brussels to build a physical border in Northern Ireland.
Republican parties in Northern Ireland — Sinn Fein and SDLP – warn that such statements, especially by Boris Johnson, are “foolish and dangerous.”
EU leaders are planning a meeting on November 13 to sign off a framework agreement, if there is one. Initially, the extraordinary EU summit was scheduled for October 18-19.
It is unclear whether Brussels and London can reach a framework agreement, particularly on Northern Ireland. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) are said to be broadly supportive of Theresa May’s roadmap, but her political leadership could be challenged this autumn.
According to Reuters, diplomats suspect that the date for the EU summit could be pushed further down the line for December or even January.
However, this would be impracticable. The UK is due to leave the EU on March 29, 2019. Delaying that date would be politically difficult to envisage. And all should be done before the EU 27 go to the polls for the April 2019 European elections.
If there is no framework agreement by March, there will be no transition period. The UK would move directly to World Trade Organisation arrangements for trade, leading to miles of tailbacks in Dover.
While the Labour Party is divided on Brexit and embroiled on a discussion about Anti-Semitism, the Trade Union Congress (TUC) stepped in on the debate on Sunday.
The leader of the 48-member confederation, Frances O’ Grady, warned that if the unions were not satisfied by the agreement negotiated would push for a second referendum. She warned that thousands of jobs were at stake as BMW, Airbus, and Jaguar were planning to relocate production.
Labour says that a second referendum is “on the table,” but are not committing to the objective.
The Confederation of British Industries (CBI) director, Carolyn Fairbairn, has put her weight behind Theresa May’s so-called Chequers plan but admits that uncertainty is hurting business and warns that “no deal” would be “a catastrophe” for business.
Asked to comment on the prospect of a second referendum, the UK’s Department for Leaving the European Union refused to confirm or deny that it has taken legal advice on holding a second referendum.
The British prime minister has repeatedly ruled out the prospect of a second referendum. Last week, Brexit minister Dominic Raab said that the prospect of a second referendum would undermine the UK’s negotiating position with Brussels.