LONDON — The fragile Brexit consensus inside the U.K.’s ruling Conservative Party is crumbling at its foundations — and with it the stability of Theresa May’s government.
Two rival visions of Brexit, long promoted by the so-called soft and hard Brexit wings of the party, appear so irreconcilable that an influential group of backbenchers, led by the MP that bookmakers consider the favorite to succeed Theresa May, are now in open revolt.
Against this backdrop, on Friday Brexit Secretary David Davis will re-enter the fray with a major speech on the government’s vision for a Brexit transition period.
Appointed to lead the political side of the U.K.’s Brexit negotiation, Davis was seen as someone who could command the confidence of the Brexiteers he campaigned with to leave the EU, while also remaining loyal to his political ally May, who backed Remain. She sees her task as delivering a Brexit that can unify a country and a party divided down the middle.
Davis’ speech will outline the U.K.’s wish list for the post-Brexit transition period. But with the internal Tory party politics of Brexit more fractious than ever, what might have been routine pre-negotiation positioning has taken on a new significance. To some extent, the preservation of the “May consensus” rests on Davis’ shoulders.
Hammond vs. Rees-Mogg
On Thursday, two speeches by two champions of the rival blocs laid out the Tory divisions for all to see.
The chancellor, Philip Hammond, long an advocate of a cautious retreat from the EU, gave his most explicit endorsement yet for a Brexit in which the U.K.-EU economic relationship would alter only “modestly.” Speaking at a lunch hosted by the Confederation of British Industry in Davos, Switzerland, he welcomed CBI Director General Carolyn Fairbairn’s speech this week calling for a customs union with the EU. “We are taking two completely interconnected and aligned economies with high levels of trade between them, and selectively moving them, hopefully very modestly, apart,” he said.
Within hours, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the chair of the backbench European Research Group (ERG), called on the government to “fundamentally change” its tone on Brexit, warning in a speech at a school in Hampshire that the current strategy looked like it would land the U.K. in a “similar system to the single market and the customs union” and risked turning Brexit into a mere “damage limitation exercise.”
“The British people did not vote for that. They did not vote for the management of decline. They voted for hope and opportunity and politicians must now deliver it,” Rees-Mogg said, in a speech that read like a pitch to be prime minister.
The ERG, which Rees-Mogg took over little more than a week ago, is a collective of around 60 Brexiteer Tory MPs that between them have the numbers to call for a vote of no confidence, or (by some margin) to deny May a parliamentary majority.
To ram home the point, Rees-Mogg told POLITICO when asked for his thoughts on the chancellor’s Brexit vision: “I profoundly disagree.”
Nothing has changed
The prime minister’s office denied that the Brexit position has changed. In a rebuke to Hammond, a Downing Street official said the policy was to leave the single market and the customs union, adding: “Whilst we want a deep and special economic partnership with the EU after we leave, these could not be described as very modest changes.”
Davis himself, at the House of Commons Brexit committee hearing on Wednesday, characterized the strategy as one of maintaining close economic ties while liberating the U.K. to diverge from EU rules at a later date, if a future government or parliament chose to. That is far from the radical change Brexiteers like Rees-Mogg want to see.
Brexiteers are also worried about the transition period — the topic of Davis’ speech on Friday in the post-industrial town of Middlesbrough in northeast England.
He and Rees-Mogg sparred over it at Wednesday’s committee hearing, with the latter warning that Davis and the government would render the U.K. a “vassal state” if they accept an interim period in which the U.K. abides by EU rules to guarantee unchanged market access, but has no say in setting those rules in Brussels.
Davis’ speech may seek to allay those concerns, with U.K. officials indicating he could call for a mechanism whereby the country can continue to have some say in EU rules during the transition.
According to short extracts from the speech briefed to journalists overnight, Davis will also make clear that he wants the U.K. to be able to negotiate and even sign trade deals with non-EU countries during the transition — just not to implement them until afterward: a clarification but not a major development of government policy.
“As an independent country, no longer a member of the European Union, the United Kingdom will once again have its own trading policy,” Davis will say. “For the first time in more than 40 years, we will be able to step out and sign new trade deals with old friends, and new allies, around the globe.”
Whether this is enough to appease the Brexiteers remains to be seen. Reports on Thursday evening suggest they are now preparing to amend upcoming Brexit legislation, the Customs Bill, to deliver a Brexit closer to their vision.
It is a rebellion May could sorely do without. Beset by questions about her leadership ever since she gambled and lost the Conservatives’ majority at a snap election in June 2017, May has come under renewed pressure in recent days from a broader spectrum of her MPs than ever before, leading many to wonder whether enough lawmakers might soon oppose her to trigger a no-confidence vote. Under party rules, 48 MPs must submit letters to the chairman of the backbench 1922 committee to force such an outcome.
“However fractious people might be from time to time, the political fundamentals are unchanged” — Senior MP
The next few days and weeks could be crucial. One senior MP, speaking on condition of anonymity, said a combination of Brexit divisions and resentment at lack of advancement following May’s new year reshuffle lay behind the current flare-up in discontent. But, they argued, the fundamentals keeping May in power — that Tory MPs don’t want a leadership contest that could trigger a fresh general election, which Labour might win — remain the same as they have for months.
“However many people might be cross that their unique brilliance wasn’t recognized in the reshuffle, or cross about what one or other member of the Cabinet has said, the overwhelming mood is one that says ‘we carry on,’” the MP said. “However fractious people might be from time to time, the political fundamentals are unchanged.”
Whether they hold depends on the way May, Davis and her government play Brexit over the coming days and weeks.