In office for less than 48 hours, Theresa May showed her true colours and intentions for Brexit when she made the remarkable promise that Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty will not be activated until there is agreement between Westminster and the devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This has the effect of allowing the UK’s departure to be delayed indefinitely. In a separate statement SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has supported this idea. May has also visited Wales and said she wanted the Welsh government to be “’involved and engaged’ in Brexit negotiations.”
The fact that May’s first act after choosing a cabinet was to go running off to Scotland to meet the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon before embracing the patently absurd idea that both Scotland’s wishes to remain in the EU and the majority UK wish to leave the EU could be reconciled shows this was planned before she became PM. Her visit to Wales, doubtless to be followed by one to Northern Ireland, reinforced the suspicion, if it needed reinforcing, that she is intent on sabotaging Brexit.
There is plenty of other evidence of May’s duplicitous intentions. At her first cabinet meeting she said “we will not allow the country to be defined by Brexit”. This is nonsensical if May is committed to Brexit. Regaining sovereignty is what Brexit is about and sovereignty defines what a country is.
What is May’s motivation for this behaviour? Like a majority of Tory MPs she does not want to leave the EU and is intent on finding a way of subverting Brexit. She can do this in two ways:
(1) May will use the excuse of accommodating the wishes of Scotland, Wales and NI to delay the UK’s exit as long as possible in the hope that unforeseen events, for example, the UK economy going into prolonged recession, will give her an excuse to hold another referendum.
(2) May will agree terms with the EU which stitch us back into the EU with things such as free movement and she will justify such an agreement on the grounds that Scotland, NI and possibly Wales will not agree to anything less.
All of this would go against what the British voted for on 23rd June. You might say neither this government nor Parliament would tolerate such a rejection of popular will. The problem is that despite the clear majority to leave most MPs, including Tory MPs, wish to remain inside the EU and two thirds of May’s cabinet are Remainers. The House of Lords is also solidly for remaining in the EU. In principle Parliament could accept whatever deal is reached with the EU. If it is several years down the line, as it almost certainly will be if Article 50 is activated, this could mean that the voters will have been exhausted and confused by the whole process and fail to protest effectively enough to prevent the stitch up happening.
There is also the possibility that May could distract or “buy” the acquiescence of Tory Brexiteers to a sell-out of the Brexit vote by giving them some red meat such as increasing defence spending and the permitting of new grammar schools.
But even if the British voter is outraged by such a betrayal, what exactly could they do to stop it happening? At the next general election they could vote against any MP who voted to accept what might be called a Quisling agreement. But who exactly could they vote for? UKIP is the obvious party and there is now a real opportunity for it to gain a serious Commons presence. But it is unlikely to form a government in the near future because history shows it takes a great deal to shift voters en masse to a new party, and even in the event of UKIP potentially holding the balance of power in a hung parliament, if a coalition of Labour and the Tories was formed, UKIP would be left out on a limb.
It is true that May has appointed three leading Brexiteers to posts which will either directly or indirectly impinge on the Brexit negotiations: David Davis (Minister for Brexit), Boris Johnson (Foreign Secretary), and Liam Fox (Minister for Trade Deals) to her cabinet. Davis and Fox are long term Brexiteers; Johnson is a Johnny-come-lately Brexiteer whose steadfastness on the issue is highly questionable. But whatever they wish to do, these three will probably be no more than window dressing.
May has given Johnson a deputy, Alan Duncan who is a Remainer and a close associate of May, and has been known to refer to Johnson as ‘Silvio Borisconi’. Fox cannot agree any trade deals until the UK has left the EU and David Davis is already at odds with May over her promise that Article 50 will not be activated until the devolved home countries have agreed to the terms of the deal agreed with the EU.
David Davis wants article 50 to be activated by the end of the year while May has left the date uncertain because of her promise to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to agree what is to be sought from the EU before entering negotiations. This puts her directly at odds with Davis and probably with Liam Fox and Johnson. There is also dissention in cabinet over when Article 50 will be activated.
Another sign of May’s insincerity can be found in her appointment of Amber Rudd as Home Secretary. Immigration is the issue which matters most to the public. It is what won the Referendum for the Leave side. Yet May’s Home Secretary is soft on immigration. In addition, Rudd and Boris Johnson have suggested that there should be no net immigration target since it cannot be met. Unless Brexit permits full sovereign control of our borders it will not be Brexit as the voters understood it.
With all this going against a clean and honest Brexit it is not too difficult to imagine Davis resigning or being sacked long before the negotiations with the EU are concluded. Fox could follow him out. Johnson is such a slippery individual, anything is possible, including a Pauline conversion to EU membership. It is possible that the negotiations could end up in the hands of Remainers.
I am against using Article 50 because it allows the EU to control matters and leaves the UK as an EU member for at least two years after the Article is activated, but Davis, Johnson and Fox are all signed up to its use, so at present it seems unlikely that an alternative way of leaving will be used. However, it is possible that could change once the public realises that for several years the UK would not be able to control EU immigration and that EU directives including new ones have to be followed. The only thing which can be said for Article 50 is that, in theory, it means there is no going back. Once activated the UK is irrevocably on the way out. Of course the EU has a record of breaking laws when it suits them. It is not out of the question that a combination of EU power brokers and Europhile MPs could simply cancel the UK activation of Article 50 and leave the UK in the EU.
There are two possible alternative means of leaving the EU. Clause 62 of the Vienna Convention on Treaties might allow a much quicker departure (3 months) on the grounds of a fundamental and unforeseeable change of circumstances, but only if all the member states of the EU agree to it. I suspect that would end either in denying the UK to depart on the grounds of such a change of circumstances, or would embroil the UK in some form of long-winded arbitration.
The other option would be for Parliament to do what long term campaigner for the UK to leave the EU Lord Stoddart has proposed, namely, repeal of the 1972 European Communities Act and amendments, to start the ball rolling. I would support this, followed by legislation to both assert the Sovereignty of Parliament (not strictly needed but a belt and braces approach is just as well, bearing in mind our Europhile judges), and give a certain legal status to existing EU inspired UK law which can then be kept, amended or repealed as Parliament decides.
The future is more than ordinarily uncertain but one thing is certain. We know May’s “Brexit means Brexit” is in all probability a bouncing political cheque which she cynically issued, knowing it would not be honoured.