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Transatlantic Blog

Explainer: Theresa May’s ‘New Brexit Deal’

Over the weekend, Theresa May’s cross-party Brexit negotiations collapsed, but their worst ideas live on.

At 4 p.m. London time, Prime Minister May unveiled the terms of what she calls a “bold” effort to pass her Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB). She condensed her “new Brexit deal” into 10 points:

Our New Brexit Deal makes a 10-point offer to everyone in Parliament who wants to deliver the result of the referendum:

 

1. The government will seek to conclude alternative arrangements to replace the backstop by December 2020, so that it never needs to be used;
2. A commitment that, should the backstop come into force, the government will ensure that Great Britain will stay aligned with Northern Ireland;
3. The negotiating objectives and final treaties for our future relationship with the EU will have to be approved by MPs;
4. A new workers’ rights bill that guarantees workers’ rights will be no less favorable than in the EU;
5. There will be no change in the level of environmental protection when we leave the EU;
6. The UK will seek as close to frictionless trade in goods with the EU as possible while outside the single market and ending free movement;
7. We will keep up to date with EU rules for goods and agri-food products that are relevant to checks at border protecting the thousands of jobs that depend on just-in-time supply chains;

8. The government will bring forward a customs compromise for MPs to decide on to break the deadlock;

9. There will be a vote for MPs on whether the deal should be subject to a referendum; and
10. There will be a legal duty to secure changes to the political declaration to reflect this new deal.

 

All of these commitments will be guaranteed in law – so they will endure at least for this parliament.

May declared, "If MPs vote against the second reading of this bill, they are voting to stop Brexit.”

The biggest news is that May dropped her opposition to the possibility of a second referendum, which its supporters dub a “People’s Vote.” There is no majority in Parliament for a second referendum, and May has not promised a free vote. That has led Liberal Democrats to maintain their opposition.

The bill attempts to appeal to Labour Party members while foreclosing the possibility of a no-deal Brexit, favored by many members of her own Conservative Party. But Labour MPs, who favor a permanent customs union, reject May’s “compromise” offer of a vote on “a temporary customs union.”

The WAB still maintains the possibility that the entire UK will remain subject to EU rule from Brussels in perpetuity, if both sides can find no solution to the Irish border.

Theresa May has tried every conceivable method of making this pottage palatable, short of improving its ingredients.

The requirement that MPs approve all future “negotiating objectives” in advance has been described as “May essentially trying to let Parliament tie her successor’s hands” by Mail on Sunday deputy political editor Harry Cole. Roughly two-thirds of current MPs voted Remain.

“There’s nothing new or bold about this bad buffet of non-Brexit options,” said former Conservative Party leader Ian Duncan Smith.

Most of the “bold, new” proposals had been offered before Jeremy Corbyn wrote the cross-party talks had “gone as far as they can” on Friday. He cited the government’s “weakness and instability,” as well as the possibility of “importing chlorinated chicken” from the U.S.

A significant change is May’s attempt to woo Labour MPs by promising to “keep up to date with EU rules” and that “workers’ rights will be no less favorable than in the EU.”

Beneath this laden language is the reality that the Conservative government agreed to trade all the potential benefits of Brexit: the ability to control its own regulatory environment to create a better and more dynamic economy. It cannot eliminate regulations and create a more attractive business environment, to Brussels’ and Corbyn’s delight. Nor can it choose a similar level of regulation comprised of different rules that better fit its unique domestic situation.

The UK leaving its historic role as a brake on EU centralization, just as Emmanuel Macron promises an “ambitious” agenda and Guy Verhofstadt dream of a new European empire, assures the red tape will multiply exponentially.

British subjects become rule-takers, unable to enjoy either the benefits of full membership or the independence to chart their own economic course.

This was always going to be the UK’s fate, under May’s plan, until the contentious issue of the Irish backstop gets settled. (Brussels and Belfast both understand that the matter is settled.) May’s genius came in selling the arrangement to Labour MPs as a way of locking in economic regimentation.

Her plan shipwrecked because from Corbyn’s vantage point on the far-Left, the EU’s statism looks like neoliberalism. Corbyn demanded a promise that UK labor legislation is more exacting than EU regulations. In her speech, May vowed “to assure that UK workers’ rights are always as good as, or better than, EU rules.” But the fourth point says that labor regulations “will be no less favorable” than the EU. It is unclear which language will be codified; Mayhas not promised to make the WAB’s full text available before the Whitsun recess. Parliament will vote on the bill during the week of June 3, causing the vote to coincide with President Donald Trump’s state visit for the 75th anniversary of D-Day.

Short term, Corbyn wants the WAB to explicitly state the UK can hold to more stringent labor and welfare standards than the EU. Long term, he wants to move the UK further Left than the EU will allow and for May’s government to collapse. Backing out of the cross-party talks moves him closer to both ends.

Brexiteers including Jacob Rees-Mogg have signaled they will oppose the deal, both because of previous broken promises and the unspoken reality that the party will soon have a new leader. May agreed during her latest meeting with the 1922 Committee that she will set a timetable for stepping down as prime minister after the vote, win or lose. They hope for a more forthright advocate of Brexit to seize all the opportunities for growth, independence, and innovation it offers, including its ratification of the principle of subsidiarity. (Hence, the importance of binding her sucessor’s hands.)

At least 11 MPs who supported the bill during the third meaningful vote have changed their minds. One such Tory now predicts the bill will fail by 150 votes. At this point, the bill looks poised to fail by historic margins exceeded only by … itself.

The June vote looks like May’s D-Day.

Theresa May has tried every conceivable method of making this pottage palatable, short of improving its ingredients. She – and the UK – could have fared better by trusting the wisdom of UK voters, the capacity of the free market, and the promise of independence instead of deceptive negotiators abroad and faux bipartisanship at home.

(Photo credit: Kuhlmann/MSC. This photo has been cropped. CC-BY-3.0-DE.)


Rev. Ben Johnson is a senior editor at the Acton Institute. His work focuses on the principles necessary to create a free and virtuous society in the transatlantic sphere (the U.S., Canada, and Europe). He earned his Bachelor of Arts in History summa cum laude from Ohio University and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa.