Editor’s Note: Jane Merrick is a British political journalist and former political editor of the Independent on Sunday newspaper. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
Next week marks six months until Brexit day – the moment when the UK actually leaves the European Union.
This historic turning point was voted for more than two years ago, and it is 18 months since the leaving date of March 29, 2019, was set.
To anyone who wasn’t paying close attention to British politics, it would be natural to assume, therefore, that the terms of that departure and the UK’s future trading arrangements were already falling into place, that all sides were close to securing a deal.
The reality, of course, is not quite so straightforward. Negotiations between the UK government and the EU – which have been taking place for more than a year – are still fraught. Even an outline of a deal – which is supposed to be agreed by the end of next month – will have to be ratified by all EU countries and the UK’s own Parliament.
This continuing uncertainty has allowed Theresa May’s opponents from both sides of the British political debate – those who want a hard Brexit with all ties to the EU severed and staunch remainers who want the final deal to be put to another referendum – to exploit the Prime Minister’s weakness.
Ardent Brexiteers like Boris Johnson, who resigned as Foreign Secretary in July, want to stop the Chequers plan – the “soft Brexit” proposal agreed by the Cabinet at May’s country retreat, Chequers – because it would mean the UK staying hooked to the EU on the movement of goods.
It is a fair criticism of the Prime Minister that she has allowed negotiations with Brussels to move too slowly, particularly in the earlier months. It is also true to say that she undermined her own authority by holding an unnecessary and ultimately disastrous snap election last year.
Yet May has something her opponents do not: a coherent plan that is the basis for negotiation. Her so-called Chequers Plan is not perfect – even May’s own ministers admit that – and Brussels is not going to accept it without some changes. But it has opened up talks with Brussels and brought a deal closer than it was before.
Last week, Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, said he expected a deal on Brexit could be struck by early November – meaning the Chequers plan, with some tweaks, is a workable proposal.
This was a major setback to arch-Brexiteers like Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, who had spent the summer claiming that Brussels regarded the Prime Minister’s plan as hopeless.
The major sticking point is Ireland, because the UK’s departure would mean a new border between Northern Ireland, which will remain part of the UK, and the Republic, which remains in the EU. A hard border would risk inflaming old tensions, yet no border at all would create a frontier between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
On Monday, Johnson tore into the EU’s holding position on the Irish border, known as the backstop, which would see Northern Ireland remaining aligned to the EU single market and customs union, saying it would mean the province would be “annexed” by Brussels.
Yet the former Foreign Secretary was already overtaken by moves in Brussels, as reports emerged that the EU is planning to accept a frictionless border in Ireland with customs checks streamlined by technology. If the reports are accurate, it means that an overall Brexit deal is much closer than May’s staunchest critics claim.
This puts the Prime Minister in a stronger position than she has been for months. Only last week, some Brexiteer Conservative members of Parliament met to discuss whether they had enough support to launch a vote of no confidence in her leadership – tied to a wider push by Euroskeptics to “chuck Chequers.”
Yet it was clear they do not have the numbers, for now, to attempt to topple her. Even some of those anti-Chequers critics do not want to remove her as Prime Minister. Crucially, while May is sticking to her plan – reiterated on Monday in an interview in which she warned there were only two options on the table, Chequers or no deal – her opponents are short of alternative proposals. In an announcement that should serve as a sobering warning to Brexiteers, the International Monetary Fund warned on Monday that, while all possible Brexit outcomes will entail costs to the UK economy, a no-deal scenario will hit hardest of all.
And those on the anti-Brexit side of this debate calling for a second referendum, known as the People’s Vote, do not have a plan for leaving the EU, because they want to undo the whole thing. Ultimately, May’s opponents on both sides of Brexit have left it too late to make their moves. The March 29, 2019, leaving date is fixed by law. Given that a deal needs to be struck before the end of the year, there is not enough time to go back to the drawing board. The Chequers plan is far from perfect, but it is the only one being taken seriously in Brussels.
For all her shortcomings, lack of progress and misjudgment, the Prime Minister is attempting to deliver what the first referendum instructed her government to do, and is inching toward achieving that goal.