Theresa May Credit: Policy Exchange

The US presidential election is losing interest to the average political junkie, though the hard core can fuss over the margin of victory. We Told You So (footnote). So time for a Brexit update, to remind you what a real politician looks like digging herself out of a deep hole.

The politician is Theresa May, catapulted to 10 Downing Street after her rivals obligingly self-destructed. She is disciplined and chilly to an extent that makes Margaret Thatcher or Hilary Clinton look like Oprah Winfrey. So she follows the first rule of being at the bottom of a hole, which is to say as little as possible. It’s a waste of time to guess her real thoughts and intentions. As with Kremlinology, you watch the deeds instead.

What has she done on Brexit, which she opposed without enthusiasm?

  • She has said that “Brexit means Brexit”. This is a clever phrase: it sounds tough and unambiguous, but falls well short of a Sherman pledge. There is no “I”. It could be interpreted as anything from “out regardless” to “out provided the terms are OK”.
  • The procedure for leaving the EU laid down by Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty has not been triggered. Article 50 sets up a two-year ticking bomb deadline for the exit negotiations: if there is no deal, you are out anyway, without any access to the single market beyond that assured by WTO rules. This was designed to stack the negotiating deck in favour of the EU. So May has seen off pressure from European politicians like Hollande and Juncker to get it over with quickly. Invoking Article 50 is a sovereign British decision, essentially hers.
  • She appointed the Brexit leaders in her own party to run the negotiations: Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary (he of the bad hair and worse Erdoğan limerick), David Davis as chief negotiator, and Liam Fox to create a web of new trade deals replacing the EU’s. This was neat vengeance: the Brexiteers said it would be a piece of cake, now they must deal with it. It will make their camp responsible for failure. In another piece of black humour, May appointed another Brexiteer, her hard-right rival Angela Leadsom, to run agriculture: dealing with the interest group that stands to lose most heavily, farmers and rural landowners. Leadsom torpedoed her own candidacy for the Tory leadership by comparing her own family to May’s involuntary childlessness, a move judged too crass by the low standards of Tory infighting.
    These are not the appointments you would make if the priority were the best possible exit terms. Juncker has responded by appointing a French Gaullist hardliner to lead the EU side, Michel Barnier, seen by the City of London as an enemy. It looks as if May sees a bad deal as inevitable.
    The reality, which the Leave campaign fraudulently succeeded in concealing from English voters, is that freedom of movement and access to the single market are linked as founding principles of the EU. Norway and Switzerland have had to accept the former as the price of the latter, the former within the EEA treaty, the latter a bilateral deal. (This has led to a parallel Swiss political crisis following an anti-immigration referendum, worth following.) This linkage drives a brutal wedge between the two pillars of British Toryism, cultural conservatism (now anti-immigrant) and capital (now deeply dependent on European markets).
  • Both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted Remain, though Wales voted Brexit. Their devolved governments would both like to stay in the EU. May has promised them she will take a “United Kingdom approach and objective” to the Brexit talks.  That does not give them a veto. But Brexit against their will would lead to a double constitutional crisis. Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland would press for a second independence referendum – this time « independence in the EU », which she would probably win. In Northern Ireland, the prospect of restoring a tightly policed border with the Republic is unwelcome to Protestants and anathema to Republicans. The Good Friday settlement could unravel, and the Troubles even restart.
  • May is a former Home Secretary. She really knows about both Scottish Nationalists and Irish Republicans. If she were forced to choose between honouring Brexit and the survival of the Union, or a revival of Republican violence, there is not much doubt which way she would jump.

The scenario for betraying Brexit (which I devoutly pray for) could be a second referendum on the negotiated deal, including carveouts for Scotland and Northern Ireland, and either a cave-in on immigration or a show-me-the-instruments loss of access to the single market. Who would vote for such a barrel of stinking fish? So the UK could end up staying in the EU anyway.

There are plenty of other possibilities. Barnier can’t force May to trigger Article 50 before she’s ready. Conversely, she can’t force him to prenegotiate first. This could drag on and on. Liam Fox needs all the time she can give him. No Whitehall civil servant has negotiated a trade agreement since 1972: it’s been an exclusive Commission competence. There are stories that the Civil Service is recruiting foreigners with the expertise – immigrants.

Footnote – We Told You So

Your humble servant, May 14:

So her [Clinton’s] chances to a sensible bettor are more than Wang’s 70%, a lot more …
My own unscientific hunch is that the presidential election will turn boring in September. Clinton’s lead following the conventions will go firm at a roughly 10% margin and the political class will come to accept that she is sure to win.

With the greater caution of the tenured academic at a prestigious university, Harold Pollack on May 21:

Trump will lose, probably in ignominious fashion … For any number of reasons and causes, Trump may also leave this experience in some personal disgrace. I have no idea whether this will happen because of some racial code-words, some sexist comment, maybe disparaging the disabled, or some financial or tax thing. I think disgrace will come.

It’s not over yet, and our predictions could still be falsified, but really, it couldn’t be going better for them. Even Trump’s disgrace is getting closer, with his “Second Amendment” and “rigged election” jibes and the Russian ties.

Commenters: Please heroically restrict yourselves to Brexit. We know what everybody thinks about Trump and Clinton, right? There will be another Trump post and comment thread along in a minute. There are 83 days of the campaign to endure. We may be reduced to a limerick competition.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

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