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TCW’s Brexit year: January – Was May plotting a return to the EU all along?


OVER the last days of the year we will be reviewing The Conservative Woman’s 2019 Brexit year, in which we:

  • exposed Theresa May’s persistent attempt to dilute Brexit into meaninglessness or worse, keep open the door to our later return to the EU;
  • kept up the pressure on the enfeebled Conservative Party to topple Theresa;
  • cheered on the new Brexit Party as the fight against the WA all but disappeared from within the ranks of the Conservatives;
  • held our ground on Boris Johnson’s improved but warmed up WA agreed with the EU.

Today we return to January when Peter Gardner asked ‘Has May been plotting a return to the EU all along?

REMARKABLY, the EU’s intentions to complete its economic and monetary union – the central feature of its five-year plan commencing after the European elections in May – have come under little scrutiny since the Referendum, and not at all in connection with the shifting sands of Mrs May’s apparently calamitous Brexit negotiations.

The plan is expected to provide the foundation for a further programme whose central aim is to establish the Federal State of Europe by around 2028-30.

Yet our extendable transition period proposed in the Withdrawal Agreement aligns very neatly with this programme, prompting the question of whether Mrs May and her Remainer government are intending that the UK should be positioned – with the WA voted for – to accede to these new treaties with minimal adjustment.

The possibility warrants consideration. Is this merely circumstantial or purposeful? Is it part of a grander design for us not to leave the EU, or at least keep the door open to rejoining?

Is this what Mrs May always intended and does it account for the direction in which she has deliberately taken the Brexit negotiations?

It is easy to attribute her early apparent failures and concessions to weakness or incompetence: her delay in invoking Article 50 until March 2017; the six months of paralysis before declaring the UK would not seek membership of the single market or customs union; her request for a transition period (September 2017); and acceptance of the Irish backstop (December 2017).

But she rapidly seemed less weak and clueless when she began to dismiss out of hand any alternative to her own proposals.

Last summer at Chequers she threw away the work done by David Davis, although his evidence to the Brexit Select Committee showed the viability of a free trade deal based on regulatory equivalence coupled with measures for frictionless trade. All it required on the Irish border was political will.

Her now infamous Chequers proposal into which she bounced her Cabinet bound the UK to EU regulation, did not commit to a free trade agreement, unconditionally paid £39billion, and made non-EU trade deals very difficult to negotiate. The betrayed Davis, Steve Baker and Boris Johnson resigned.

Applying the same tactic again in November, she thrust a 500-plus-page Withdrawal Agreement on to the Cabinet without giving them time for due consideration, leading to resignations but not to its or her defeat.

How did she achieve these coups?

With Olly Robbins transferred from David Davis’s Department for Exiting the EU to her own staff at No 10 she has had a back channel to Brussels for alternative planning. Latterly this has included an unprecedented subordination of the UK to EU defence, quite unnecessary unless May intends that the UK rejoin the EU in the near future.

By burying Davis’s good deal – never published – and waiting for the date to pass for putting in an optimal customs system for the UK, she restored the Irish border issue to her armoury – the triple-lock structure designed to stop Brexit as Deputy Chief EU Negotiator, Sabine Weyand was to reveal.

Mrs May has not just achieved personal control of the negotiations, she has taken ownership of Brexit, making it her personal project.

Adamant there’d be only her deal on the table, that ‘No Deal’ would be chaotic, she launched her own Project Fear. With Philip Hammond’s help she gave the fabled ‘cliff edge’ substance by continuing to limit the release of money for WTO (no-deal) preparations. Instead she embarked on emergency measures better suited to a country under siege.

Her final political feat has been to produce a Parliament fearfully and utterly opposed to ‘No Deal’/WTO terms.

It is surely unnecessary to ask whether the Government understood the obvious logic of the EU’s negotiating tactics. (A successful independent UK must be strangled at birth as it would be a competitor and existential threat to the EU. Other countries would follow.) But instead of countering this, the Government has consistently seemed to be giving priority to sustaining the European Project above UK’s independence. Why?

Is it really that May doesn’t believe in independent sovereign nation states; that, a technocrat by nature, she has come to believe that technocratic supra-national government is superior and best for UK?

Which raises the question, what persuaded her?

Simply, perhaps, the EU’s published plans for its future which have informed her EU colleagues’ discussions with her. The current foundation, the Five Presidents’ Report, published in June 2015 while May was Home Secretary, outlines three stages of change, first under the Lisbon Treaties, second with new treaties by 2025 and finally founding the Federal State of Europe probably by around 2028-30. A follow-up White Paper in March 2017 outlined five scenarios for the future.

Factsheets and ‘reflection’ papers on the social dimension, harnessing globalisation, deepening economic and monetary union, European defence and EU finances published by June 2017 – would most likely have been in May’s ‘preps’ for her upcoming Florence visit that autumn. The ensuing commentary, including Jean-Claude Juncker’s speech on the EU’s future in September 2017, had clearly enthused Mrs May who, in her Florence speech, committed to ‘not standing in their way’ and to a ‘new era’ of partnership and co-operation with the EU.

How on earth did she think she could she achieve that within Brexit?

Well, firstly by committing to a transition period, extendable if required, which nominally ends halfway through the EU’s five-year plan starting this year: the central aim of it being to put the new treaties into effect by 2025, the context in which the UK’s future relationship would be negotiated.

Secondly, through a Withdrawal Agreement (WA) that facilitates the UK’s acceding to the new treaties, making it effectively, an accession agreement.

Thirdly – with the next UK general election scheduled for 2022 – by enacting the WA now and securing this window of opportunity. That is essential. It is also why the actual shape of the deal (even the Red Brexit she is now threatening her own party with) is of secondary importance. All that matters is that it has wide coupling to EU regulation, doesn’t preclude accession, aligns with the EU timetable and makes escape by a future government difficult. It does all these things.

Does this ‘masterplan’ credit Mrs May with too much or has, in fact, the blame heaped on Olly Robbins, her federalist-inclined bag carrier, been overdone? Civil Servants aren’t paragons and, whether as individuals or as an organisation, resist change just as most do. But Mrs May has proved to be a minister not to be contradicted. Both stubborn and ruthless, she commands no loyalty and expects none. Rigid, a woman who refuses to abandon a plan once she has committed to it regardless of what the opposition and others do in response, she excels at party politics and Westminster games. Far from being in office without power, she maintained authority over her Cabinet despite their feeling able to brief out of line.

Now May’s and the EU’s aims have been given fresh impetus by Macron’s and Merkel’s recent calls for further defence integration and further relinquishing of national sovereignty.

Matters may, contrary to received wisdom, have turned out as May intended. If she calculated that her true aim of accession to a new EU would not be exposed until too late, she was right.

Make no mistake, rejecting her Withdrawal Agreement on Tuesday is the UK’s last chance to gain independence. Those MPs who succumb to fears of the alternative will find this rests heavy on their consciences.

Postscript: Four days later Michael St George reported that the Remainer coup was under way and that the fix was in, which you can read here. 

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Kathy Gyngell
Kathy Gyngell
Kathy is Editor of The Conservative Woman. She is @kathygyngelltcw on GETTR and is back on Twitter.

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