Theresa May has come a long way since her Lancaster House speech, delivered on 17th January 2017, which set out her vision for the basis of the UK’s post-Brexit relationship with the EU. The speech was met with relatively widespread support among Brexiteers and Remainers alike, as it called for “a new and equal partnership – between an independent, self-governing, Global Britain and our friends and allies in the EU.” In a rare example of magnanimity, the speech was even welcomed by European Council President Donald Tusk as “realistic”.
Crucially, Lancaster House satisfied the Brexit mantra of “taking back control”, through ending the jurisdiction on the ECJ (European Court of Justice) and ending freedom of movement. It also called for a “bold and ambitious” free trade agreement with the EU, as well as the ability to strike new trade deals with non-EU countries.
Whilst setting out these central pillars of the UK’s negotiating stance, Lancaster House also called for continued cooperation with the EU on areas of common interest, like security and science; the protection of the Union (of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) whilst simultaneously maintaining a common travel area with the Republic of Ireland; and the protection of workers’ rights and the rights of EU nationals living in the UK (and vice-versa).
But things began to fall apart after details of the so-called Chequers Plan added meat to the bones of the Prime Minister’s vision for the UK’s future relationship with the EU. The Chequers White Paper sought to “establish a new free trade area and maintain a common rulebook for goods, including agrifood”, with a commitment to ongoing harmonisation with EU rules where necessary to ensure trade remains as frictionless as possible without still being a member-state of the EU.
This prompted two high-profile resignations – Brexit Secretary David Davis and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson – along with a raft of other more minor ones, as many Brexiteers feared Chequers would leave the UK stuck within in the Single Market “in all but name”; a rule-taker without any say at the negotiating table. Chequers’ notion of a “common rulebook” also prompted concerns that EU courts would still reign supreme in the UK, with Johnson claiming that Theresa May had “wrapped a suicide vest” around the British constitution and “handed the detonator” to Brussels.
Turbulence turned into tailspin when the terms of the draft Withdrawal Agreement were revealed in November 2018. Parliamentary opposition to the deal is centred around the issue of the so-called Irish “backstop”, which would keep the whole of the UK within a customs union with the EU in order to prevent the need for checks at the Irish border. According to Attorney General Geoffrey Cox, the UK could be “indefinitely committed to it [the backstop]” if it came into force, leaving the UK stuck in a kind of Brexit no-man’s land with no say over rules emanating from the EU and no way to unilaterally extract itself. Crucially, such a scenario could make it impossible for the UK to negotiate free trade deals with non-EU countries.
Whilst the vote of no confidence in Theresa May’s premiership was soundly defeated, it is clear that the Prime Minister will need to secure significant assurances and clarifications, from Brussels if she is to succeed in getting her deal through parliament. Clearly, a significant number of Tory MPs believe that her deal crosses over her own red lines in tying-in the UK to a putatively indefinite “vassal” status, as they see it.
That said, Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary, believes that the deal can be passed if the EU can provide adequate assurances that the backstop will be temporary. “If it is temporary, then parliament can live with that,” Hunt told BBC radio. “We can get this [deal] through, absolutely [we] can.” Up to now, however, the EU has closed ranks and looks determined that the terms of the withdrawal agreement won’t be altered. One thing is for sure: the PM has her work cut out over the coming days.