Garvan Walshe / Oct 2017
UK Finance Minister, Philip Hammond. Photo: Shutterstock
The Daily Telegraph used to be known as the house journal of the British Conservative Party and the Spectator its weekly equivalent. Earlier this month, the editor of the latter wrote a piece in the former, calling for the Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer (Finance Minister) to be sacked. The right wing Daily Mail ran, on its front page, the story that he was conspiring (like a good Tory should, over lobster) with his predecessor to block contingency planning for what is being known as a “no deal” Brexit, in which the UK would leave the EU to become a third country for trade, security and immigration purposes. Julia Hartley-Brewer, a right leaning journalist who appears frequently on BBC programmes, demanded he be tried for treason.
These interventions do not emerge from a vacuum. They are at the service of an increasingly nervous faction of hard line anti-Europeans afraid their plans for independence will be derailed — shunted into an indefinite “transition phase” where Britain accepts all EU obligations without formal say in its institutions. These hard Brexiteers are one of three groups that hide behind the increasingly threadbare formula that of a “good Brexit deal”. Threadbare, because of irreconcilable disagreement about what counts as good.
Despite the Brexiteers’ smattering of economic ideology, leaving the EU is not for them an economic matter. They are English nationalists who feel that Britain isn’t culturally or historically really a European country. They consider any trade agreement beyond mutual tariff reduction as a concession, because it would need an enforcement framework, and therefore require Britain to give up sovereignty. So when they say “no deal is better than a bad deal”, they really mean it. They want to become a “third country” and think deeper arrangements are a loss of independence for which they should be compensated.
Mr Hammond, and others within the cabinet, including the effective deputy Prime Minister Damian Green, think in effect that all deals are bad deals. All outcomes, on their merits, are inferior to remaining in the EU. They see their job as doing what they can to minimise the losses, while accepting the public’s instruction at the referendum to leave. Whereas the Brexiteers want maximum disruption, these true conservatives-with-a-small-c want to change as little as possible. They would all have been satisfied by a Norway-style arrangement. Inferior to EU membership, but better than anything else. All deals are bad deals, but some deals are more bad than others.
The third faction is led by (or perhaps consists exclusively of) the Prime Minister. She can imagine a good deal: in which the immigration of Europeans can be restricted, but domestic security cooperation maintained, or even in principle intensified, provided the European Court of Justice can be kept away from direct jurisdiction over the agreements. For her, a good deal is an interior ministry deal. But her insistence on immigration cuts, hostile tone, and a home office that is either malign or utterly incompetent have poisoned talks, while her simultaneous appeal for a close security relationship yields bafflement: If you want all this, then why do you want to leave? And if her answer on a radio phone in last week in which she was unable to explain whether she would herself vote to leave if another referendum were held today, is anything to go by, she might well have baffled herself.
The Prime Minister’s idea of a good deal appears impossible, whereas the other two are incompatible: one requires maximum change, the other as little as possible.
The UK Parliament won’t accept a third country “no deal”. But the Conservative party and right-wing press are organising to prevent anything else. They are willing to bring down their own finance minister, risk a crisis of confidence in the City, and perhaps a collapse of the government, to show they’re serious. The moderates now daren’t bring down the Prime Minister, in case the party elects a true Brexiteer replacement but if Philip Hammond is removed they might have nothing to lose. The UK won’t be able to formulate a coherent negotiating position until the standoff is resolved and without one the outcome could be worse still, a chaotic unilateral Brexit by default.