As Theresa May lands on Brussels on Thursday, she leaves behind a Queen’s speech that was politically timid, devoid of pomp, and programmatically lean, if one were to strip away the fat of Brexit negotiations.
On Wednesday, the atmosphere was somber in Westminster. Following the Grenfell Tower block fire in London, which claimed the lives of 79 people, the British prime minister started out offering an apology. She then moved on to express regret for the electoral result. And she also noted that the country was divided, politically, between young and old, Remain and Leave. But, she was still in charge, assuming she manages to seal a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Yesterday, the DUP made clear that such a deal was neither imminent nor inescapable.
The “best possible deal”
Brexit is the bare bone of May’s government, who started, developed, and concluded her own speech with the need “to get Brexit right,” a task no one envies.
With her decreased authority and political capital, she entered the parliament greeted by protestors, having dropped the biggest part of her domestic reform agenda, especially on welfare cuts and education.
Changing her tune from “steady and strong” leadership, she now placed emphasis on “consensus,” reaching out to the opposition, business groups, and public opinion. All that was left from her April 18 air of political dominance was the assertion – and now a call to arms – to secure “the best possible deal as the country leaves the European Union.”
“While this will be a government that consults and listens, we are clear that we are going to see Brexit through, working with parliament, business, the devolved administrations and others to ensure a smooth and orderly withdrawal,” Theresa May said.
Whether Theresa May will continue to pull the cart of British government will be tested next week, on June 29, when her government will have to pass a vote of confidence. But, it is widely suspected her government will have to endure a string of similar votes.
Change of tone, not substance
Various industrial and service lobby groups welcome the change of tone. But, the outline of the legislative programme set forth by the British government leaves little doubt as to where negotiations are heading.
The first order of the day will be the transfer of EU law into British law, with differentiation on immigration, customs, and fisheries. That is the so-called -“Great Repeal Bill.” “Repeal refers to the 1972 European Communities Act and will also result in ending the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.
Taking back control
The unraveling of EU law will be carried through nine bills.
This confirms that the only Brexit that can happen is “hard,” as there is no return from an agreed policy on limiting freedom of movement and an exit from the Single Market, the Customs’ Union, VAT charges, and excise regimes.
Hence the next priority will be an immigration bill to end free movement, which will aim to reduce migration to below 100,000. In time, the British government should also deliver a bill on trade and a bill on fisheries and agriculture, which will limit access of foreigners to the UK’s territorial waters and will set a national system of agricultural subsidies.
However, there is little confidence in May’s ability to command the necessary majority for such groundbreaking legislation, which will require a shaky balance between Remain and Leave MPs, not to mention dealing with a deeply divided public opinion.
Rather than presiding over a triumph, Ms. May saw her first Queens speech as a “caretaking” prime minister that will serve the Conservatives while she can, or is allowed to.
An alternative government
But, one should not underestimate the time care-taking governments can endure, especially if the opposition has a solid domestic agenda but is not clear on how to deviate from an ongoing negotiation schedule.
The leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, reminded Theresa May on Wednesday that she no longer commands a parliamentary majority and stepped up to declare the Labour Party as a government in waiting. But, while his criticism focused on issues like the Grenfell Tower fire, which took place in his own constituency, he steered away from criticism on Brexit.
The Labour Party campaigned to uphold the referendum’s decision to leave the EU, although there is no internal party consensus on whether or not there should be Single Market membership. On the one hand, the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, John McDonnell, is committed to exiting the Single Market and the Customs Union; on the other, the shadow Brexit Secretary Kei Starmer has argued that Single Market and Customs’ Union membership should “remain on the table,” prioritizing jobs. As negotiations escalate, Jeremy Corbyn will need to reach a synthesis on the matter.