After a 12-hour-long meeting with Cabinet ministers at her country residence on Friday, Theresa May emerged with a view of the UK’s negotiating position on future arrangements with the EU. The plan includes a common market for free trade for agricultural and industrial goods, which is to be created by a common rulebook between the UK and the European trade bloc, and also sets out a framework in which EU migrants to the UK would be given special rights to enter.
The Prime Minister appears to have accomplished a number of objectives with regard to Brexit, politics, and her own party. For example, she has set out a plan to fulfil the manifesto commitment to leave the single market and customs union, in order to adhere to the ‘will of the people’. The plan also unites most of the Cabinet and the vast majority of her party, with Brexiteers such as Michael Gove and pro-European ministers such as Philip Hammond all backing the deal, with only a few exceptions (cough, Boris, cough). In fact, Theresa May appears to have done incredibly well, with Michael Gove seeming to back the idea of a Super Canada deal, but only shying away from requesting it due to its lack of viability in getting through Parliament. Perhaps most importantly, the plan sees the issue of the Northern Ireland border largely resolved, which was all the more crucial due to the government’s supply-and-confidence arrangement with the DUP in Parliament.
Particularly though, the meeting at Chequers, which, from accounts of Cabinet ministers, included huge debate and argument over the arrangement, revealed something rather interesting about Mrs May’s government, which has been missing from British politics for far too long.
Back in the days of Thatcher and Major, as well as most previous Prime Ministers, Cabinet was arguably as important as the Prime Minister, as the top job commanded its holder to listen to their team in order to make decisions. This concept was fuelled by the idea of collective Cabinet responsibility, another idea that has been AWOL for too long. However, first Blair turned the system into a more presidential one, in which the only people he listened to were his aides, then Brown and Cameron continued this, and seemingly destroyed Cabinet democracy and conviction politics for good.
However, as of late, Cabinet-based politics and proper collective responsibility have appeared to at least somewhat make a return. Due to the weakness of the government, the Prime Minister has been forced to listen to her Cabinet and give them the power to help in decision-making, which hopefully is returning for good. As for collective responsibility, while a few Cabinet ministers regularly go against Mrs May (cough, Boris, cough), most ministers find a way to back the decisions and policies, and if they can’t, then they, rightly and properly, resign from their posts. The resignation of David Davis as the Brexit Secretary in the late hours of Sunday demonstrates this reborn sense of collective responsibility within Theresa May’s government.
But, for many reasons, there are many critics of the policy agreed on itself. Michael Gove hoped for more control and sovereignty, although he has backed the deal, saying that he prioritises the ‘good’ over the ‘perfect’ when the latter is unachievable. Hardline Brexiteers such as Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson have openly criticised the prime minister and the negotiating position, describing it as both weak and not fulfilling the referendum result. At least with regard to its weakness, they may well be right. While criticism on the Remain side has been muted, as it often has been throughout the last couple of years, it has nevertheless been present, with most pro-Europeans making the argument that the deal is not comprehensive enough as it only spans agricultural and industrial products and that we will also be bound to certain rules for this trade agreement. The general Remain line is that as the deal is worse for us economically, but much the same with regard to control and sovereignty, we may as well be in the EU, and should thus have the controversial second referendum.
The largest issue for Theresa May is the resignation of Mr Davis, who has been replaced by Dominic Raab, the now former housing minister. Yet another departure from the Cabinet (adding to the current list — Damian Green, Amber Rudd, Priti Patel, Michael Fallon, Patrick McLoughlin, and Justine Greening) weakens the government and the resignation of such a key figure in the government shows just how chaotic a situation the Conservatives find themselves in. Boris just resigned as well, apparently. Great.
As I wrote, both David Davis (and his parliamentary undersecretary Steve Baker) and then Boris Johnson resigned. On reflection, the resignations of these key figures over a period of around 15 hours demonstrates the sheer chaos of the current British political scene, and, perhaps shows that a radical solution will now be necessary.
I believe that the PM’s best option is now to suspend Article 50 and possibly call a snap election, but definitely a leadership election. With so little time left in the Brexit negotiations, they must be paused to allow the domestic politics and dramatics play out and they can be resumed later, probably with a new PM and government, possibly with a different party in charge. The fact that the Tories (and Labour) are still so divided regardless of the decision to call a referendum to try to heal the divisions shows that major change is on the horizon, and we can’t rule out a split in both of the two main parties.
Whatever the future of UK politics, though, Brexit must be prioritised and the good of the country must now be put before the good of any of the political parties. Perhaps we should suspend Brexit, or stop it altogether, perhaps we should invoke Article 50 and re-negotiate the deal, or perhaps we should press ahead with the current negotiating stance. However, regardless of the decision (by this government or the next), it’s high time politicians remembered to put their convictions and beliefs ahead of playing politics — whatever deal is done must be done because of a belief that it is the best possible outcome for the country, not because of anyone’s leadership ambitions or party goals.