by Ronald J. Granieri*
Ever since the British public voted to Brexit the European Union in 2016, the most important political debate has not been between the British and their European partners, or even between the ruling Conservative Party and the Labour opposition. The most intense conflict has been within the Conservative Party itself, as the Tories have tried to resolve their own inner conflict about Britain’s relationship to Europe and to the world.
The latest chapter in this family drama played out over this past weekend. Prime Minister Theresa May gathered her Cabinet at Chequers, the government’s official country estate to hash out a concrete plan for negotiating Brexit. After more than a year of debate, with deadlines approaching for the fate of Britain’s relationship to Europe, May hoped to unite her team around a compromise plan that would allow Britain to strike a deal with the EU that maintained as many advantages as possible for both sides.
After announcing the deal, however, party unity lasted barely twelve hours. Sunday night, David Davis, the Cabinet minister in charge of the Department for Exiting the European Union, tendered his resignation, claiming that he could not support the deal after all because he did not “believe” in it and was "unpersuaded" that the government's negotiating approach "will not just lead to further demands for concessions" from Brussels. "The general direction of policy,” he announced in his resignation letter, “will leave us in at best a weak negotiating position, and possibly an inescapable one." The next morning came even bigger news, as Foreign Minister Boris Johnson followed Davis and several junior ministers out the door. In his dramatic resignation letter, Johnson claimed he had to leave because the Brexit “dream” was “dying.” He agreed with Davis that the Chequers agreement was not only suspiciously soft, but that as an opening bid in negotiations, it was likely to lead to an even softer final agreement once the European negotiators were finished with it.
Johnson’s departure raised the political stakes considerably for May. As both the most senior Cabinet member and a long-rumored candidate for the Prime Ministry himself, Johnson’s decision to leave the government positions him to challenge May directly for leadership. Although May has since appointed replacements for the departing ministers, and has for the moment fended off possible no-confidence motions, her position within her party and thus her place at No. 10 Downing Street is as unstable as it has ever been.
How could an effort to reach consensus fail so spectacularly? The reason is simple: the Tories have irreconcilable differences about Europe, and have had them throughout the postwar years. Although Tory idol Winston Churchill had endorsed the idea of a “United States of Europe” in 1946, his endorsement was based on the idea that the other states of Western Europe should unite, while Britain continued to play a global role as both an imperial power and the junior partner in a “Special Relationship” with the United States. As those roles changed, British conservatives warmed to the idea of Europe. In 1961, Tory Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, recognizing the reality of British economic ties to the continent and listening to the advice of American President John F. Kennedy, formally applied for British membership in the European Economic Community. Those negotiations foundered on French opposition and unresolved questions about Britain’s Commonwealth ties. Nevertheless, for the next decade, the Tories were the leading exponents of British membership in the EEC, which became complete in 1973 through the leadership of Prime Minister Edward Heath. At that point, it was Labour who opposed European integration, and in a 1975 referendum on EEC membership, Heath and the Tory leadership (including his eventual successor Margaret Thatcher) succeeded in convincing the British public to stay in.
By the time Thatcher herself became Prime Minister, however, the Tory relationship with Europe began to sour. For a free market enthusiast and scourge of the welfare state like Thatcher, the European Community began to look too much like a Continental socialist organization. She thus became increasingly critical of its organization, even as she recognized the material advantages of British membership in the single market. She succeeded in negotiating a series of special exemptions for Britain, including a special annual rebate on part of Britain’s contributions to the EC budget, and never suggested that Britain should leave the community, while also encouraging a steady drumbeat of criticism of the allegedly overweening ambitions of Brussels. That encouraged an increasingly bipolar attitude among Tories toward Europe, which weakened the party in Thatcher’s final years in office and led to outright (un-)civil war under her successor, John Major.
During over a decade in opposition, the Tories became increasingly identified with Euroskepticism, even as the party leadership recognized Britain’s membership in the European Union (as it eventually came to be known) brought significant benefits. Thus when the Tories returned to power under David Cameron in 2010, the new Prime Minister had to figure out how to develop a coherent policy on Europe. As a consistent if lukewarm believer in maintaining British membership, Cameron hoped that he could mollify the Euroskeptic in his party and keep them from joining the more militantly anti-European United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) by promising to hold a new “in or out” referendum.
As he had succeeded in doing by agreeing to a referendum on Scottish independence in 2014, which resulted in a strong win for the status quo, Cameron hoped that simply holding the Brexit referendum would satisfy Euroskeptics, end the debate, and allow him to move on to other items on his political agenda. He did not expect to lose, but lose he did. In what political scientist Andrew Glencross calls Cameron’s “Great Miscalculation,” nearly fifty-two-percent of voters chose Brexit. Although majorities favored remain in both Northern Ireland and Scotland, larger majorities in Wales and especially in England carried the day.
Even worse, for the future of the Tories as well as Britain, was that the referendum only deepened intra-party divisions. Although Cameron and May and other party leaders had campaigned (consistently but ineffectively) for Remain, other prominent Tories, especially Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, loudly proclaimed their support for Brexit. In doing so, they had the apparent advantage of consistency, as they could rely on Euroskeptic rhetoric going back decades within the Conservative party and its allied media outlets. But the deep differences would make governing extremely difficult.
In response, Cameron, who had promised that he would stay in office no matter the result, simply quit, tossing the hot potato to his former Home Secretary, Theresa May, who has been juggling it ever since. Gove and Johnson mutually blocked each other from No. 10, but both eventually entered the Cabinet.
May promised a “strong and stable” government, and announced that “Brexit means Brexit,” without being able to say for certain what that would be.
Although Brexiteers considered the referendum result as the definite will of the British people, it was never clear whether all those who voted for Brexit were voting for the same thing. The Leave campaign made a great many promises, from a windfall for the National Health Service to the re-assertion of Britain as a global power. Voters were encouraged to assume that the British could escape all the things they did not like about the European union (such as free movement of people, further political integration, and the British contribution to the EU budget) while keeping all of the economic benefits of membership (from free trade within the bloc to the special role of the City of London in Europe’s financial dealing). Never terribly coherent or realistic from the start, these hopes collided quickly with reality once negotiations began.
Unsurprisingly, the European Union, which has an interest in discouraging departures in any event, has not been disposed to allow Britain to keep all of its advantages with no cost. Especially difficult have been questions surrounding the future border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland (the one land crossing between the EU and the UK) and whether the UK can expect to benefit from free movement of goods and services while restricting the movement of people. Desultory negotiations led by David Davis had brought a solution no nearer, while sniping between factions within the government has only increased.
Boris Johnson, who had flirted with Remain before stunning his frenemy David Cameron by becoming a leader of the Leave movement, summed up his Brexit strategy by saying Great Britain could “have our cake and eat it.” Honest if irresponsible, “cakeism,” has not satisfied anyone. It has been denounced as too soft by those Tories who simply think that Britain should get out of the EU completely and build its relationships with the world from scratch thereafter. Such advocates of a “hard Brexit” include not only the recently departed Mr. Davis but also prominent backbencher Jacob Rees-Mogg, who has become something of a rock star for British conservatives.
Denying that she supports “cakeism,” Theresa May’s favorite dessert is, rather, fudge. She has both announced that “Brexit means Brexit” while also hinting, with the support of her Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond, at flexibility in negotiating the final deal with Brussels. So far, her offerings have not been very palatable for either side. From her first day in office to this week, May and her Cabinet have struggled to find consensus. A snap general election in 2017 weakened her further, as the Tories lost their majority and now depend on the votes of the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland.
Facing increasing pressure from both internal critics and her European interlocutors about her apparent lack of a coherent plan, May intended to make the Chequers agreement the final basis for a softish Brexit, allowing Britain a status not unlike Norway—with access to the European markets, within some unspecified regulations, and freedom from EU political integration. Such a deal would be inferior to Britain’s current EU membership (the UK would still have to pay for access to the market, as Norway does, but would no longer have any say in those regulations it would be expected to follow), but allowed the possibility of controlling immigration, thus satisfying a main Brexiteer demand. A soft Brexit could also avoid undue friction along the Irish border.
As with many compromises, the Chequers agreement left no one completely satisfied. Then came the resignations, and now it appears no one knows what Brexit means after all. May has moved quickly to replace her departing colleagues and has vowed to fight any effort to topple her, but her future remains murky. Political rivals are circling to decide what they can get.
Although she has not united her government, May appears to have briefly united her critics. Remainers across Britain have greeted the news of the resignations with barely disguised glee, claiming that could be the start of a reconfiguration of British policy, if not a reversal of the Brexit decision altogether. Hard-line Brexiteers, however, have also cheered the resignations, for quite the opposite reason. They hope they signal the beginning of a formal rebellion within the Tory ranks. In the absence of any last-minute compromises, Hard Brexit, intentional or not, now appears to be the most likely result.
A key figure in the days to come will be Environment Secretary Michael Gove. A partner and rival with Johnson in advocating Brexit, Gove has so far chosen to stay within the government, calling himself a “realist” and urging his colleague to back the Chequers plan. Gove is playing a careful game, relying on his Brexiteer credentials to give him credibility as a possible successor to Theresa May, while avoiding the appearance of disloyalty.
All of this, of course, leads to the question of whether anyone in the Conservative Party really wants to push a no-confidence vote and risk new general election. It is hard to see that as an attractive option, both because it would create further uncertainty in Brexit negotiations and because polls suggest the Tories and the DUP could lose their majority altogether. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has promised to carry Brexit through, would be happy to take over, and destroy the Thatcherite dreams of many Hard Brexiteers. May has already used that threat in her effort to discipline her party colleagues. How long she will be able to hold off her rivals remains to be seen.
With this week’s NATO summit and the impending visit of President Donald Trump, Theresa May hoped that the Chequers Conference would forge peace within her political family to provide a strong foundation for British foreign relations. As in many a British novel, however, family intrigues and resentments run deep and haunt the present. Theresa May entered Chequers with great expectations, but now she, her party, and her government face hard times ahead.
*Ronald J. Granieri is Executive Director of FPRI’s Center for the Study of America and the West, editor of FPRI’s The American Review of Books, Blogs, and Bull, and host of Geopolitics with Granieri, a monthly discussion program at FPRI.