Brexit: 'Tory Canyon'

Tory Party hardliners may wrest control of the wheel in the next six weeks, driving the UK onto the ‘hard Brexit’ rocks.

“…the good news for conspiracists is that in Westminster, the plots thicken. There is the secret establishment plot to sabotage Brexit and the secret establishment plot to destroy Mr Corbyn, the Labour leader. There is the plot to oust Theresa May and make Mr Johnson prime minister and the plot to oust Mrs May and not make Mr Johnson prime minister. There is a plot by the populist right to take over the Conservatives and a plot to create a new centre party. There are plots to force a no-deal Brexit, a soft-Brexit and a second referendum.

All the above are in some sense real. Most are not really plots, just the open continuation of political arguments. Yet the striking fact of these intrigues is just how desperately the supposed victims seem to need them to be conspiracies.”

Robert Shrimsley, Financial Times, 20 August 2018

In March 1967, the UK suffered what is still its worst ever oil spill when the SS Torrey Canyon, a first generation supertanker, ran aground on rocks off the coast of Cornwall (pictured). 51 years later, it is easy to imagine that the ‘canyon’ within the UK’s ruling Conservative (aka ‘Tory’) Party, as outlined by Robert Shrimsley above, could trigger an even bigger disaster, ie a so-called ‘hard Brexit’.

To put some topical substance on this assertion, let us consider first the 19 August claim by the recently appointed Secretary of State for Brexit, Dominic Raab, that securing the exit agreement necessary to avoid a hard Brexit on 29 March 2019 was “the most likely outcome” of the current negotiations. He made this claim as he announced that 23 August would see the start of the launch of a series of 84 (reportedly) technical/regulatory notices as part of the preparations for the possibility of the UK’s crashing out of the EU. A (leaked) list of the areas covered can be found here.

Given their alleged (by the press) absence of practical advice and from what I have personally seen of these notices, I cannot resist opining that they bear a close relationship to another memory from my childhood, ie the 1963 civil defence advisory that in the event of warning of a nuclear attack one should hide under the kitchen table with a paper bag over one’s head! To back this superficially hyperbolic claim up, allow me to mention just one fact: in the critical (for the UK) area of financial services (see my article of 30 July) it appears that the UK will publish just one note, whereas the much better prepared EU already has eight in existence.

And yet, just two weeks previously, the Secretary of State for Trade, Liam Fox (like Mr Raab, pro-Brexit), had claimed that the probability of the UK’s leaving the EU without a deal was “60-40”; and that the realisation of this scenario looked more likely by the day. Dr Fox went on to make it clear that, in his opinion, if this were to come about it would be the fault of the EU, claiming that the UK had “…made an offer to the EU which we believe is generous and some in the UK believe is over-generous”. If one was being charitable (naïve?), one might conclude that this was purely an effort to put pressure on the EU to make concessions and that there were no serious divisions within Prime Minister Theresa May’s cabinet. However, from all we have seen of the Tory Party when it comes to ‘Europe’, not only since June 2016 but over the past nigh-on three decades, we can safely assume that Dr Fox was either hoping that his words would prove to be a self-fulfilling prophecy or beginning a ‘blame game’ process if a hard Brexit does ensue and proves to be the — at least short- to medium-term — disaster that all but the most die-hard Brexiteers think is possible, if not likely or even inevitable. [Note: see here for a succinct but useful account of what ‘no deal’ would probably mean.] Or, of course, both. In which case Dr Fox may well be taking some heart from claims this week (reported by the Financial Times — subscriber access only) by senior Danish and Latvian ministers that the probability of a hard Brexit was “50:50”.

If all this seems worrying, it should! Especially since there is now just a smidgen over eight weeks until the 18/19 October European Council meeting which is supposed to sign off on the exit agreement in order to allow time for ratification before 29 March. Furthermore, neither this nor the negotiating sessions in the run-up may prove to be the most critical meeting(s) in the coming weeks. Rather, that accolade may well belong to the Tory Party conference due to be held in Birmingham between 30 September and 3 October.

As I reflected in my previously referenced article of 30 July, I lean firmly to the view that Mrs May’s basic game plan is to continue to play the Brexit process ‘long’ in order to avoid the seemingly inevitable crunch point which could all too easily lead to a party leadership challenge and/or a formal party split or mass defections triggering the collapse of the government and another early general election.

The major immediate challenge she faces which this approach faces remains, in my view, that the Brexiteers appear to believe (rightly, I think) that the longer the process drags out the less likely they are to achieve the clean break with the EU which they crave. I therefore reckon there to be a non-negligible probability that they will seek to stage some sort of open revolt at the party conference, a prospect which (whether it materialises or not) greatly complicates the task of reaching an exit agreement in time for the 18/19 October summit (let alone agreement on the future relationship, which is surely implausible by then with so little time remaining even if that is Mrs May's objective).

The bottom line? I am not as gloomy as the aforementioned Danish and Latvian ministers. But I would nevertheless put the probability of Mrs May avoiding a ‘Tory Canyon’ disaster in the next six weeks — and, therefore, of the UK avoiding a hard Brexit on 29 March by pushing critical decisions into the transition period — at no higher than 60%.

Alastair Newton