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Cerberus: A snap election would ensure that Brexit really does mean Brexit


A Conservative government has a small majority and a new and largely untested leader; a monumental political and parliamentary challenge lies ahead over Europe; and a significant number of would-be rebels and assassins lie waiting in the shadows.

No, not John Major after his unexpected election victory in 1992 as he prepared to pilot the integrationist Maastricht Bill through the Commons, but Theresa May in 2016 as she seeks to ensure that Brexit really does mean Brexit. History is in danger of repeating itself.

With her first 100 days behind her and progress over Brexit moving glacially slowly, May’s honeymoon looks like soon coming to an end. Rhetorically, she is fine as she stands up to Europe leaders and insists there can be no going back on the referendum vote to leave the EU. But action is not this day. Article 50, which sets in train the two-year process for formally quitting the EU will not be triggered before the end of March. Then lies ahead many months of wrangling over the precise terms of the divorce.

Will we get a tariff-free trade deal with the EU or will we have to fall back on WTO rules and the consequent imposition of tariffs? Will we have to compromise over free movement of people? Will we still be expected to pay into the EU budget for several years to come?

More immediately, will the courts side with the Government and agree it has the power to trigger Article 50 without a parliamentary vote? They should do but no one can be certain. Then there is the Great Repeal Bill, formally cancelling our 43-year membership of the EU, which will be taken through Parliament next year and which will take effect once the Article 50 process is over, some time in the early part of 2019.

This Bill is probably the biggest cloud on Mrs May’s horizon. Already, Westminster insiders are muttering darkly about plots to derail it. Prominent opposition figures such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg are said to be making common cause with the likes of Tory dissidents such as Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan. The Remain camp has reformed as Open Britain, backed by City PR man Roland Rudd, and, drawing on its establishment connections, is campaigning vociferously for Britain to remain a member of the single market, which would effectively nullify the vote to quit the EU.

History does look like it is about to repeat itself. A quarter of a century ago, diehard Eurosceptics sought to subvert the Maastricht treaty. Ironically, this time, diehard Europhiles, boosted by their strong following in the Lords, Whitehall, the law, business and the City, and the professions, are manoeuvring to do much the same to the Great Repeal Bill.  They may not succeed, just as the Maastricht rebels ultimately failed to block that giant stride along the road to a federal Europe, but they can cause Mrs May much trouble.

Major faced a strong and determined Labour opposition as he sought to keep his recalcitrant troops in line. May, at least, is confronted only by the disorganised and unpopular rabble of Corbyn’s class war warriors. On the latest count she has an 18-point opinion poll lead. The Prime Minister and her No 10 staff have repeatedly ruled out an early election. But as the scale of the task facing her becomes ever more apparent – and the perils posed by a small majority loom larger – we should expect talk of a snap poll in 2017 to grow.

Going to the country and returning with a majority of 100 may be the only way Mrs May can ensure that Brexit really does mean Brexit.

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Cerberus writes a blog every Monday on the state of modern Britain.

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