This article was originally published on The Commentator
Less than a year to go until the United Kingdom officially leaves the European Union and Prime Minster Theresa May is once again on the backfoot.
May’s handling of Brexit as premier has largely consisted of the unusual and confounding situation of her rhetoric being explicitly simple – ‘Brexit means Brexit’ – whilst also remaining infuriatingly ambiguous.
This awkward situation manifests itself most distinctly with the current argument over Customs Union membership. Vote Leave’s leading lights, and the PM herself, have always maintained Leaving the EU also meant quitting the Single Market and Customs Union, and yet the issue still dominates the headlines and the negotiations, with Leave voters and businesses at a loss for what to expect.
Last week in the House of Commons, MPs debated a backbench motion for the Government to include an objective to negotiatea ‘customs arrangement’ with Europe – language which not so subtly expresses a desire to remain within the existing framework.
The chamber was half empty, but the symbolism of 13 rebel Tory MPs is potent, not least because meaningful votes are scheduled within the next few months, so any headaches now will soon evolve into full blown migraines for the whips.
May has consistently been unable to keep her Cabinet in line with her positions. Former Home Secretary Amber Rudd, resigning on Sunday due to her role in the Windrush scandal, put her foot in her mouth when she suggested the final status of the UK’s position in the Customs Union had yet to be agreed in Cabinet.
This is of course despite No. 10’s continuous claims to the contrary. Whilst we are happy to admit this may simply be a case of Rudd misspeaking while her mind was focussed on other things – namely how her career was falling apart – the whole episode illustrated May’s tenuous grasp on her own highest officials.
Rudd’s newly announced replacement and fellow Remainer, Sajid Javid, doesn’t alter the Brexit balance of the Cabinet per say, but is widely regarded as being less ideologically tied to the EU than his predecessor, and less likely to favour a half-baked‘customs partnership’. This is a good sign as the Home Secretary will sit in May’s Brexit ‘war Cabinet’ of senior ministers.
Negotiations of any kind inevitably lead to climb downs and compromise, but they should never be allowed to undermine the basic negotiating positions of the party involved. In this case, the vote to Leave the European Union came with some certainties: we stop paying Brussels every year, we can set our own tariffs and strike our own trade deals, and we control our own immigration system.
Everyone who’s honest knows that to accomplish this we must Leave both the Single Market and the Customs Union, so it is not blind partisanship to cry foul when select elected officials (all of whom voted to Remain) are now demanding continued EU membership.
We don’t want to play second fiddle to Brussels anymore — that was the point of Brexit. This must apply to the negotiations: it is imperative we begin our new journey from a position of strength.
The recent news that the Government will publish a 50-page dossier setting out our trade priorities is welcome and is frankly coming far too late. If we continue down this road of only reacting to the EU negotiators, then we will see the exact same result David Cameron discovered: intransigence.
Brexit isn’t inherently a Conservative only task, but it is their shoulders which must now carry the burden of this profound responsibility. Having the nationalists and the Lib Dems parroting the Remain line is to be expected, and we can hope the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party back the demands of their own Leave constituents to support the Government’s negotiating position, especially if they are to form a government in the future.
For now, though, it is May’s party which has to deal with the negotiations, and it is imperative the party fall in line with her original propositions.
It wasn’t the mandate she wanted, but May is in this for the long run and must play her hand strongly.
She must do more to unify her party, no easy feat for sure, in order to quell embarrassing spectacles in the Commons.
Having Johnson, Gove, and Fox on the verge of resignation every other week is no way to run a Cabinet. But the startling thing with Theresa May is this: the important words have already been uttered – ‘Brexit Means Brexit’. She just needs to put the action behind them in order to Get Britain Out.
Stephen Mitchell is a Research Executive at grassroots, cross-party campaign Get Britain Out