Hold onto your backstops, this is going to be a bumpy one. This week’s Sunday Roast analyses Theresa May’s begging “letter to the nation”.
On Sunday, Theresa May met with the 27 EU leaders to formally agree to the written deal negotiated over the past 18 months. It was not without controversy, as Spain had threatened to withdraw support over the issue of Gibraltar. But Theresa is a wily fox in diplomacy and she gave assurances to the Spanish PM Pedro Sánchez that Gibraltar would be exempt from any future trade deals with the EU.
This adds yet another black mark against May’s name, as the exemption theoretically leaves Gibraltar in a difficult position. Suggestions of ‘joint sovereignty’ and ‘bilateral control’ has offended many politicians. I’m sure the 96% Remain-voting Gibraltarians will be delighted that the UK Prime Minister has essentially abandoned them.
Either way, the deal was agreed, and EU leaders were bursting with pride over the success of the negotiations. They were so certain of the deal that EU officials have ruled out any further negotiations to amend the proposed bill. Leading politicians in the UK scratched their heads and are now faced with a difficult choice between May’s deal, no deal, or no Brexit.
Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy ‘was there but not involved’ Corbyn, was blinkered to the sad news that his aspired renegotiations would not be happening. It didn’t seem to bother him, as his responding press release merrily called for his plan instead of May’s.
As always, his followers were quick to kiss his feet. Though news has come that there is now a much larger presence for supporting a second referendum in the Labour Party. With an election unlikely to be accepted, this clamour for a public vote may blossom over the next few weeks.
But let’s return to the main event, the letter that Theresa May has published to drum up some support for her deal. Next month, the vote will reach the floor of the House of Commons on 11 December. This letter is just the first in a long list of speeches and appearances to persuade voters (and more importantly MPs). Even a televised debate seems to be on the cards, which people will watch in horror, disbelief, apathy, or disgust. Especially if the debate is between May and Corbyn.
I shudder expectantly.
Here’s this week fact-checking Sunday Roast:
- Name: Theresa May.
- Job: Prime Minister, and MP for Maidenhead since 1997.
- Political Party: Conservatives.
- 2016 EU-Ref Side: Remain.
- Voting Record: House of Commons.
- Affiliation: One Nation Conservative; more right-wing on issues such as immigration and justice.
- Claim: The Brexit deal works for Britain.
- Source: Prime Minister letter to the nation 24/11/18.
The first two paragraphs of the letter are standard oratory. She emphasises her duties to deliver a Brexit that “works for our whole country”. An element of conciliation is suggested by her appeal to Leave and Remain voters. The last year would certainly counter that appeal, with even many Conservatives struggling to stay loyal. Sadly for Jacob Rees-Mogg, his attempt at rebellion failed to roll far down the hill, which has potentially scored a few points for May in her battles.
The first short sentence of the third paragraph is spurious given the last three years. “It will honour the result of the referendum.”
Many differing positions have been suggested, though these Brexit types have been more visible after the 2016 referendum. Even as the deal has been concluded, Corbyn has his ‘customs/no single market’ deal, the Conservative MP Nick Boles has a small following for a ‘Norway for Now’ deal, and Dominic Raab has produced a ‘managed No Deal’. It therefore begs the question if the referendum result will truly be honoured.
With so many potential, and often impossible, methods of pursuing Brexit it is hard to see where MPs in the Conservative Part can happily compromise. The Labour Party is in a similar position with the suggested plan largely failing to excite supporters or backbenchers. There’s also a sizable contingent of People’s Vote backers now sitting on the green benches, with smaller parties also calling for a new vote. The line of argument for May is very rickety. There’s more cracks in Parliament than a firework display, and the PM has pushed the ‘will of the people’ line to exhaustion. And given the depth of illegality and corruption revealed from 2016, it’s not a good look for conciliation.
Theresa May then goes onto her favourite subject: freedom of movement and immigration. More rhetoric of “taking back control of our borders” and implementing a new system of immigration based on skills and talents instead of origin.
Theresa May has a considerably dark history with immigration. As Home Secretary, her leadership led to a host of deeply worrying policies that has discriminated and deported. The recent Windrush scandal was just one example of a Conservative-led system that has substantial flaws.
At a recent speech to the CBI, May fuelled more anger over her language and policies. She insisted that the Brexit deal would stop EU citizens “jumping the queue” and being prioritised. This was followed by announcement of a new clampdown on unskilled migrants. Naturally, this caused a wave of condemnation and anger.
However, this focus on immigration has been weighted against EU migrants to suggest that non-EU migrants have not had equal access. As Steve Bullock (a prominent anti-Brexit campaigner and PMP contributor) has stated, any barriers to immigration from non-EU countries are under the control of the Government.
This idea that EU citizens have been first in line to move to the UK is not a valid argument due to the reciprocal agreement on freedom of movement. Theresa May’s insistence on ending this policy is not only political damage, but economic and social. Academics and researchers are already surmising that racial and religious hate crime has increased since Brexit. It is therefore a potential political risk for Theresa May to further claim that the end of freedom of movement will benefit the UK.
The Prime Minister then persists with her assertion that Brexit will produce a financial dividend to spend on other priorities (i.e. the NHS). This ‘Brexit dividend’ line has been rewritten and reused by the Government since 2016, but the reality of leaving the EU will not provide a stimulus as Theresa May believes. Independent factcheckers, organisations, and economists have regularly declared the ‘Brexit dividend’ to be a misnomer. Brexit will not provide a guaranteed increase to NHS funding or public services, even with ending payments to the EU budget. The costs of losing single market access, higher inflation, and reduced business investment will outweigh any money paid to the EU budget.
In November last year, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) published analysis in conjunction with the Autumn Budget which assessed the official economic forecasts of the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR, the Government’s independent forecasters). The outlook was gloomy and has likely worsened as Brexit negotiations have become fraught. The OBR also adds that with Theresa May’s deal, contributions to the EU budget would continue until the end of the transition period, or potentially longer should a trade deal not be agreed.
Both the IFS and OBR agree that EU contributions could be recycled into other spending. However, they also make clear that this does not constitute a ‘dividend’ when the wider economic impact is considered. The NHS budget boost is a controversial and hazardous line for Theresa May, especially given the considerable attention paid to the Vote Leave ‘big red bus’ during the 2016 referendum campaign.
May goes onto repeating her soundbite that her Brexit will take back control of laws. This is another popular ‘Brexit myth’ that was regularly and keenly espoused in 2016. The jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice only relates to areas inside the EU’s policy authority, including issues such as environment, agriculture, and trade. The Institute for Government assessed in 2017 that the UK is a upstanding member of the ECJ and that Britain generally adheres to EU law without much disruption.
It is also worth noting that the ECJ’s sovereignty over UK law does not refer to any national policy outside the EU’s jurisdiction. Unless Parliament passed a bill which expressly countermanded EU law, the ECJ has no reason to threaten infringement proceedings. Many commentators also wrongly refer to the ECJ as the European Convention on Human Rights, which is not a direct EU institution.
Then the Prime Minister begins on agriculture and fisheries, which were previously part of EU policy areas. By leaving the EU, the UK will no longer be subject to the ‘common policies’ over agriculture and fishing. This has alarmed and excited in equal measure, however the consensus is one of concern. Michael Gove has proposed a new funding policy to replace EU contributions to agriculture. With it, farmers/landowners will receive subsidies in exchange for adherence to environmental protections. Leading agricultural organisation Sustain has responded to potential threats to Britain’s food standards, adding that legal loopholes and omissions to legislation will jeopardise standards.
Similarly, leaving the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) will cause a substantial impact to British fishing industries. Issues over quotas, territorial waters, and access to export markets have left fishermen in the dark over their businesses. This anxiety is not just a British problem, with coastal nations in northern Europe all showing signs of opposition over proposed changes. The potential risk, according to Andy Lebrecht (a former DEFRA Director-General), is monumental to coastal industries and the environment unless the Government produces a policy that represents the status quo. But the weekend’s drama in Brussels does not suggest calm waters for any future for fisheries.
In the final relevant paragraph, Theresa May vows that EU citizens in the UK will have their rights protected, along with British citizens in the EU. A single sentence that represents five million lives if her promises are not fulfilled.
The Government has instituted the policy of ‘Settled Status’ for resident EU citizens, though many campaigners are angry with the Government’s treatment in this area. The3million, an EU citizens campaign group, has published a list of 162 questions about the new policy that has yet to be answered. The Withdrawal Agreement does give a wide level of definitions over EU citizens’ rights, though the European Commission has been more forthcoming with answers over this.
The campaign group for British citizens living in the EU is similarly uneasy about their status. This month both campaign groups jointly published a series of papers which emphasised their positions on key elements of the Brexit negotiations. Concerns over family reunification rights, free movement, and the right to vote are just several misjudged areas that the Withdrawal Agreement fails to address. The issue of a no deal Brexit is still hotly discussed, and five million citizens will have a vast array of problems should their rights not be ringfenced.
The issue of a free trade area is then referred to in another short sentence that will be of apprehension for business in the UK and EU. Theresa May’s biggest fight has been over backstops, borders, and customs, and the agreed Withdrawal Agreement has worked on a UK-wide customs union until a formal trade agreement is agreed. This will bring some ease to potential risks at border control, though the instituted differences in Northern Ireland has raised arguments over potential smuggling and trafficking. Businesses and trade unions are rightly showing displeasure over the end to free movement of people, as it risks difficulty with supply of labour and produce.
Everything else on the letter is a call for support of the deal. Theresa May is asking for a renewal of trust and reconciliation, though with so many questions and concerns still flying around, it’s very hard to see the British public all sitting round a campfire singing ‘Kumbaya’.
All eyes are now on December 11, when the whole deal is put to the House of Commons for a ‘meaningful vote’. Much speculation has been created over whether the bill will pass, but the vast majority of strategists, analysts and critics, are shaking their heads to the deal. May needs 320 MPs to back her. So far, she may not reach 250.
Yet another exciting week gone, but I’m sure there’ll be plenty to talk about in a short seven days. Brexit may not mean Brexit, but it does mean an awful lot of typing!🔷
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(This is an original piece, first published by the author in PoliticsMeansPolitics.com)