On the ‘what’ of Theresa May’s catastrophically-inept, stubborn, secretive, submissive and duplicitous conduct of the United Kingdom’s Brexit negotiations, there is little room for doubt.
The original story, of her deceitful complicity in the covert No 10 operation that gestated her infamous Chequers Plan – which she obstinately persists in clinging to, despite its manifest flaws and rejection by both colleagues and Brussels alike – has received extensive media coverage.
Since then, the details of her successive capitulations to, and appeasement of, the EU’s intransigence, such that the position she is now reduced to claiming is a meaningful EU exit that delivers the Referendum result is scarcely distinguishable from continuing membership, have received equally widespread publicity.
In summary, having let herself be totally outmanoeuvred on the Northern Ireland backstop – with the connivance, on this and much else, of a Civil Service opposed to Brexit in principle and resolved to dilute it to insignificance, or thwart it altogether – she now proposes a £57billion-costing, non-voting vassal-state transition until 2022, before a permanent Customs Union, adherence to EU Internal Market rules, inability to strike external trade deals, continuing subservience to the European Court of Justice, and possibly also even surrendering domestic control over tax policy.
And that’s disregarding her signing away UK defence and military autonomy to the incipient European Defence Union on the sly. So there’s no lack of knowledge or detail about what May is doing.
In contrast, the ‘why’ of her incompetent, disingenuous and potentially disastrous prosecution of a soft-Remain (non)-Brexit has received little attention. This may be an understandable omission in the urgency of reporting and analysing day-to-day developments, but it’s surely equally important. It’s time we started considering the possibilities.
First, is it simply a staggering level of ignorance and incompetence? May’s failings of competence, intelligence and leadership are hardly unknown or doubted: as long ago as January I argued at TCW for her to be ousted and replaced on those grounds alone.
But it does seem unlikely that anyone could be merely incompetent to May’s degree. Nor would it account for the combination of deviousness and intolerant-of-dissent petty authoritarianism by which she had her Chequers Plan formulated behind the backs of Cabinet, MPs, party and country, then pre-cleared with Merkel, before imposing it on her Cabinet without prior warning, on pain of dismissal. Other factors must surely be in play.
For what it’s worth, my theory is this: that she’s knowingly in effect being held hostage by, and dancing to the tune of, two nominally separate but very closely aligned groups.
First the Number 10, Cabinet Office and Foreign Office officials, in whose hands – having little discernible knowledge, judgement or confidence of her own – she has been ever since taking office, who are reportedly uniformly opposed to Brexit, and of whose private contacts with EU officials we are unaware of.
Secondly, there is a reason why May the big-government statist might be particularly receptive both to the blandishments of pro-Remain Big-Business that’s essentially crony-corporatist rather than competitive free-market capitalist, and to the idea that ‘business’ equals the CBI, which represents that particular type of business organisation.
To the extent that she is ideologically wedded to anything, May seems much more inclined to the EU’s preferred model of state-involvement, crony-corporatist ‘Rhenish capitalism’ than she does to quintessentially Anglosphere small-state, low-tax competitive free-market capitalism. After all, she joined the Conservative Party in 1973 when it was led by Heath, who thought very much along those lines.
Remember, too, the CBI was fiercely pro-Remain, despite its record of having being wrong about almost every major issue for the last 100 years, including nationalisation, Prices and Incomes Policy, the Exchange Rate Mechanism, and, most of all, the UK joining the euro.
CBI-type pro-Remain Big-Business finds EU membership most congenial. First, the regulation-heavy regime is highly susceptible to corporate lobbying – in 2016 there were an estimated 37,000 lobbyists in Brussels alone – for regulation and restrictive practices that favour the interests of large producers over those of consumers, and tend to entrench oligopoly rather than generate competition. On top of that, the EU’s lack of transparency at the very least facilitates outright corruption.
Second, the large CBI-type corporates have the economies of scale to cope with the mountains of EU-originating red tape which cripples their smaller potential rivals, especially innovative start-ups. And the deal which May currently wants to accept would in effect keep all UK business, not just the mere 15-20 per cent of it involved in exporting to the EU, subject to EU regulation for which Big-Business lobbies in its own anti-competitive interest. Continuing membership for all intents and purposes thus acts as a barrier to entry for its competitors.
There has already been persuasive circumstantial evidence of Big-Business complicity in, if not influence on, the Government’s conduct of Brexit. Regular TCW readers will remember how, in the earlier iteration of Project Fear about a No-Deal Brexit in the run-up to May’s infamous Chequers Summit, Business Secretary and arch-Remainer Greg Clark emerged as not merely the willing mouthpiece of pro-Brussels Big-Business, but perhaps its persuasive script-writer too.
And it’s still going on. But keep that name in mind. For some time, there have been unsubstantiated rumours that Greg Clark – possibly the ideal choice for the role of Big-Business fixer, being so utterly uncharismatic and unremarkable – had long assured Japanese motor manufacturers in the North-East that Britain would remain in the Customs Union come what may, despite all the guarantees for public consumption that Brexit would involve exit from both it and the Single Market.
Corroboration is starting to emerge. In an article for Conservative Home last week, Stewart Jackson – Chief of Staff to David Davis when the latter was May’s Brexit Secretary – openly called Greg Clark’s dealings with Nissan ‘dubious’, and condemned Clark’s refusal to publish his correspondence with the company, despite having pledged to do so.
He said that from January this year pro-Remain Chancellor Philip Hammond, plus Clark and his officials, were briefing that the UK would be staying in the Customs Union, and that the Irish backstop was the cleverest possible wheeze to ensure that this happened. Significantly, perhaps, those allegations have not been refuted.
This would have been totally inconsistent with the vision of Brexit that May was publicly advancing in her Lancaster House and Mansion House speeches. Even now, the UK negotiating team appears to be closing down every significant element of Brexit one by one: laws, trade deals, money.
The theory, therefore, about why May is prosecuting Brexit in the way that she is – deceitfully and secretively negotiating the softest of Soft-Brexits, not in the wider interests of the British people and honouring the Referendum result and her own 2017 Manifesto pledges, but in the narrow sectional interests of anti-Brexit Whitehall and pro-Remain Big-Business – appears plausible.
And it leads to another, equally intriguing, one.
For two years, the Cameron and May Governments have been excoriated for failing to plan for the possibility of a Leave vote in the EU referendum, for instructing officials not to prepare for one, and for not doing very much to plan its implementation for several months afterwards.
But what if we were all looking in the wrong direction, and Plan B was there all the time, hiding in plain sight? What if a contingency plan for a Leave vote was prepared, and the title of that contingency plan was ‘Theresa May’? Because it had been determined, at the deepest, innermost levels of the State, that whatever the Referendum result, even an 80:20 win for Leave, Britain’s exit from the EU could not be permitted?
On this theory, there was an intention that a Leave vote would never be honoured, but muted, if not thwarted. So did Cameron inadvertently assist by resigning to be conveniently replaced, in a rigged MPs-only coronation, by a Theresa May who, although a Remainer, had spent the entire campaign hiding behind the sofa, so that she was available and not too tainted by it when Cameron resigned?
A May who proceeded, on the advice of, and with the full co-operation of, the equally pro-Remain Civil Service, backed up by a similarly inclined Big-Business and media, purposely to delay, dilute and diminish Brexit, including calling the unnecessary 2017 General Election; writing, with her closest confidantes only, a Manifesto which Ministers hardly saw before its launch and then deliberately throwing it via a lacklustre campaign and crucial gaffe on long-term social care, in order to weaken her own Commons majority and thus make it harder to get Brexit legislation through Parliament?
Fanciful? Maybe. But we are in strange political times. Who would have thought, three and a half years ago, that in the autumn of 2018 we would have a Prime Minister whom large parts of her party believe to be a complete disaster, but who is kept in place out of genuine fear of her being replaced by a 1970s Trotskyist throwback?