10th December 2017
May and Juncker – deal, or no deal?
The UK government continues to lurch awkwardly towards departure from the European Union, caught in a web of contradictions that it is struggling to untangle.
First of all, the Tories never intended to be here in the first place. David Cameron only called a referendum in the certainty that he would win it and thereby strengthen his hand against the Euro sceptics in his own party. He failed and Theresa May succeeded him.
Theresa May called a General Election in the certainty that she would sweep aside the opposition and strengthen the slim majority she had inherited from David Cameron. She failed and now leads a minority Tory government propped up by the votes of the gangster Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the political face of paramilitary loyalist thugs in Northern Ireland.
Boris Johnson, now a leading Tory Brexiteer was shouting Remain from the rooftops when that suited him under David Cameron. Hitching his chariot to the Leave battle bus was purely tactical opportunism on Johnson’s part. Expecting Remain to win, he could still court the votes of disaffected Tory MPs who voted Leave in a future leadership battle. As ever, issues of principle are never really matters of great import in the Tory Party.
Theresa May herself was a quiet Remainer who now finds herself in the Brexit driving seat, at least to the extent that DUP leader Arlene Foster allows her to take the wheel. Like their Tory bedfellows the DUP are not great ones for matters of principle either, although they would argue otherwise. They have been steadfast in their claim that Northern Ireland should not be treated any differently to the rest of the UK in the Brexit negotiations, for example.
The DUP though are very keen for progress to be held back in Northern Ireland when it comes to questions of same sex marriage, abortion and Sunday trading, just three areas in which they insist that Northern Ireland is treated differently to the rest of the UK.
The contradictions multiply.
While the Tories are compelled to drive Brexit forward, in part due to the referendum result, in part due to opportunist considerations inside their own party, the finance houses which are traditional Tory backers in the City of London are no great fans of Brexit. The great boon for the City of London of EU membership is nothing to do with the free movement of people or goods but the free movement of services, capital and financial services in this case.
It has been something of a heresy on the Left to suggest that membership of the EU is anything less than a good thing. However, the EU has always been about the best options for Europe’s banks and corporations, not its people. For the City of London this means significant clout across a wide range of the continent, a position it is not going to give up lightly.
The financial backers of the Tories are not in a strong enough position to suggest a reversal of the referendum outcome. A minimalist Brexit, which effectively keeps the UK within the orbit of the single market and the customs union, may achieve the next best thing. The hardline Brexiteers in the Tory Party will go along with this for the moment, as even Theresa May in No. 10 is preferable to Jeremy Corbyn.
The DUP share the hardline Tory desire to keep Corbyn out, with the added hope that they can continue to be the tail which wags the Tory dog, as May remains dependent upon their votes in the House of Commons.
The “sufficient progress” which Jean-Claude Juncker declared this week as enough to get the UK and EU into trade deal discussions is merely a staging post. The UK’s £39bn divorce bill could yet be a cause of division. The Irish border question, which can only ultimately be resolved by the political and economic withdrawal of the UK and a United Ireland, still has mileage as a sticking point.
Theresa May is simply the visible embodiment of the tightrope act which the ruling class in the UK continues to perform over the question of Brexit. One slip could be fatal. There is no safety net.