It seems the UK parliament’s summer recess cannot come early enough for British Prime Minister Theresa May, as her government has tabled a motion to bring forward the summer break to begin five days earlier than planned.
May, who does not have a majority in the House of Commons, the lower house of the UK parliament, has been under pressure from MPs on both sides of the debate over the UK’s exiting the European Union, the so-called Brexit, and her plans may be collapsing under the weight of their own contradictions.
She is not only facing a rebellion from the Eurosceptics in her own Conservative Party, but also a rebellion from supporters of a “soft Brexit” and pro-EU MPs. In short, May’s complicated Brexit plans, which have led to several resignations from the government including of former foreign secretary Boris Johnson and Brexit secretary David Davis, have ended up pleasing no one.
Amid the continued divisions over the Brexit plans, the government has also accepted changes to legislation on customs arrangements after the UK leaves the EU to avoid a rebellion by MPs backing a “hard Brexit” from the EU.
The customs bill, or taxation (cross-border trade) bill, and the trade bill seek to lay the regulatory framework for post-Brexit trade by setting out powers to collect tariffs and other customs charges and implement international trade deals.
However, May’s concessions to the Brexiteers in the bills have dismayed pro-EU MPs in parliament. Former attorney-general Dominic Grieve said that by accepting the amendments May had put herself in “a position of considerable weakness.”
Jacob Rees-Mogg, an influential Eurosceptic MP and the man behind the customs bill changes, said the amendments were “broadly in line” with government policy, which was why the government had accepted them.
It narrowly avoided defeat on the bill, with 305 to 302 MPs backing the amendments that seek to make it illegal for the UK to collect duties for the EU without reciprocal arrangements, thus scuppering May’s proposed customs plans.
Applying EU tariffs on products destined for the EU is part of May’s plan to avoid friction at UK borders after Brexit. Another amendment to ensure the UK leaves the EU’s value-added tax regime (VAT), was backed by 303 to 300 MPs, with a Conservative rebellion of 11.
The government insisted the amendments to the customs bill were “consistent” with the blueprint agreed by the cabinet. But the amendments will almost certainly make it very difficult for the EU to accept the UK’s latest Brexit plans.
Critics say the amendments will undermine the UK’s recently announced negotiating position, accusing the prime minister of “caving in” to the Conservative Party’s Eurosceptic MPs.
Conservative MP Anna Soubry opened a debate on the bill by asking “who runs the country – Theresa May or Jacob Rees-Mogg?”
Soubry, who is pro-EU, said hundreds of thousands of jobs could go in the UK after Brexit “if we do not deliver frictionless trade.” She said that “nobody voted to be poorer” in the referendum on leaving the EU. “Nobody voted leave on the basis that somebody with a gold-plated pension and inherited wealth would take their job away from them,” she said, referring to Rees-Mogg.
Tory MP Heidi Allen told the BBC’s Radio 4 news station that “what was agreed… wasn’t perfect to us, wasn’t perfect to Leavers either, but I think the prime minister had worked exceptionally hard to find a decent first pitch to put to the EU and move forward from that. We were all set [on the Remain side] to drop all our amendments and back it, [and] then suddenly we had these rather extreme last-minute manoeuvres, which seem to us to deviate the prime minister from her plan and we weren’t prepared to do that.”
With May’s plans losing support from both EU Leavers and Remainers, the chances of a no-deal Brexit appear to be rising. In order to avoid a cliff-edge Brexit, former education secretary Justine Greening argued that the decision on the deal should be “given back to the people” and taken out of the hands of “deadlocked politicians.”
Speaking on the BBC, Greening said the government’s proposals were a “genuine clever attempt at a compromise that could work,” but that “suits no-one.” “The reality is parliament is now stalemated. Whatever the proposal on the table, there will be MPs who vote it down. But Britain needs to find a route forward,” she said.
She called for three options to put in a new referendum: May’s plans, staying in the EU, or a clean break from Europe with no deal. She said the referendum should offer a first and second preference vote so that a consensus could be reached.
In an article in the UK newspaper the Times, Greening criticised May’s Brexit blueprint, saying that “we’ll be dragging Remain voters out of the EU for a deal that means still complying with many EU rules, but now with no say on shaping them.”
“It’s not what they want, and on top of that when they hear that Leave voters are unhappy, they ask, ‘what’s the point?’ For Leavers, this deal simply does not deliver the proper break from the European Union that they wanted.”
May has rejected calls for a second referendum on UK membership of the EU, saying it will not happen “in any circumstances”. However, increasing numbers of British MPs support a second referendum in both the Leave and the Remain camps.
Former UK Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage said another referendum was “heading much closer” but could be avoided if the Conservatives changed leader.
May has weathered many storms, but the summer revolt is not finished yet, and the autumn may be even harder with an EU summit to discuss the Brexit plans, more bills to pass in parliament and the Conservative Party conference in October.
The customs bill has passed, but only just and at a heavy price. There is now open conflict in the Conservative Party, and May will ultimately bear the costs of that.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 July 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: A difficult summer for May