Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics
Two British cabinet ministers resigned on Thursday after the cabinet approved on Wednesday night British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal agreed with the EU. After the best part of two years of negotiations, the agreement has been greeted with much relief by the administrations in London, Brussels and some continental European capitals, despite the fact that key issues have been kicked into the political long grass for resolution later.
Yet, the biggest challenge could now lie ahead in December and early next year, especially in Westminster, with the need to secure ratification in the British and EU Parliaments. Indeed, it is possible this could see Ms. May fall from office in the coming weeks, especially after the resignation of Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab and Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey.
The cabinet resignations reflect, in large part, the continuing U.K.-wide divisions over Brexit which leaves Ms. May’s tenure in Downing Street precarious. These problems were meant to have been put to bed by publication of the government’s Brexit White Paper in July.
Yet, if anything, Ms. May is even more politically isolated following the subsequent departure from her cabinet of leading Brexiteers Boris Johnson and David Davis. The former senior ministers have previously stood to be Conservative Party leader, and may do so again in the future, and are both lobbying hard against what has become known as Ms. May’s Chequers version of Brexit.
Her vision in the Chequers document came under intense criticism from the British political right and left, not to mention outside players such as U.S. President Donald Trump. Indeed, such was the opposition of elements of even her own Conservative Party, which lobbied to “chuck Chequers,” that the Prime Minister had to effectively rebrand it.
Now a draft U.K.-EU Brexit deal has been agreed to, the parliamentary arithmetic is such that Ms. May could need to rely on the votes of opposition Labour Party MPs to get the agreement through the House of Commons. Here it is highly unclear how many such Labour parliamentarians would support Ms. May, despite the potential pressure to do so for those politicians representing constituencies that voted in 2016 to leave the EU.
Another factor here that could impact the final vote in Westminster is the growing fervour for a national referendum on any deal. Last month, an estimated 600,000 to 700,000 people marched in London for the right to have such a “people's vote” and this could yet help influence the votes of a critical mass of legislators.
Take the example of former British prime minister Tony Blair, who, like his predecessor, John Major, is campaigning for such a referendum. Mr. Blair, like some other British politicians, has argued the deal is the “worst of both worlds” and asserts that parliamentarians should vote it down; he believes the consequences of inflicting a bad outcome would not ultimately be forgiven by the electorate in future years.
Mr. Blair’s view was echoed last week by former Conservative cabinet minister, Dominic Grieve. Mr. Grieve said, “I don’t accept that rejecting [any] deal would necessarily mean it is no deal at all. Of course it would provoke a political crisis … but there comes a point where you have to look to the long term … let the public decide what they want and if they are content with the arrangements the government has come up with.”
What this all underlines is the continuing disagreement within the populace and political elites over Brexit, more than two years after the referendum, which is generating significant further uncertainty into 2019. Even leading Brexiteer and Trump acolyte, Arron Banks – himself under investigation over the source of the £8-million (about $13-million) he gave to the 2016 Brexit campaign – said this month that he would now vote to remain in the EU “and not unleash the demons” of the past 2½ years.
The Brexit endgame the country is now heading into comes despite the fact that the countrywide debate has yet to be conclusively decided about the meaning of the 2016 referendum result. There was not, and still is not, a consensus across the country over any specific version of Brexit, whether the Prime Minister’s vision, or harder or softer versions.
The continuing divisions within the electorate on these issues are underlined in polls that now generally show more people favour EU membership than not, and the country split over whether maintaining access to the European Single Market, or being able to limit migration, should be the key objective in the final Brexit deal.
Taken over all, while Ms. May is relieved to have finally secured a draft EU exit deal, it may not be the final word on Brexit. Besieged on multiple fronts, getting her agreement through Parliament could prove her undoing with her hold on power very fragile, not least with the growing momentum for a referendum.