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Brexit Diaries 34

Barbara Wesel
May 1, 2018

Prime Minister Theresa May is gearing up for another tough week, while a new stealth Brexiteer has entered her Cabinet. Meanwhile, the Lords have inflicted another defeat on the government and beware the Irish border.

England Premierministerin Theresa May
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Dunham

On Thursday, Theresa May is likely to lose another election. It will only be a symbolic defeat, as the various votes taking place around the UK are only local. But if the polls are right, the prime minister's Conservatives are headed for a pretty heavy defeat, particularly in London. Even the eternal Tory districts of Westminster and Wandsworth might fall to Labour.

The capital voted 60 to 40 percent against Brexit and is the most diverse part of Britain. Nothing May has done and said in the last year is endearing her to Londoners. And the "hostile environment" ostracizing Windrush citizens, many from the Caribbean, will not play well either. Could it endanger her job? That's unlikely, but seeing her party suffer at the voting booth will hardly be a good day at the office for May.

Still struggling over the customs union

The prime minister lost her closest ally in cabinet. Home Secretary Amber Rudd had to fall on her sword after unsuccessfully trying to shield May against the fallout from her migration policy. And the PM watched impassively while Rudd dug herself into an ever deeper hole. Now she's relegated to the back benches but is free on Brexit and under no obligation to tow the government's line. Watch her vote next time around.

But the delicate balance in May's Cabinet has been tipped. Amber Rudd was one of the real Remainers and is now replaced by Sajid Javid, who is a Brexiteer in disguise. Just last week he confirmed that the UK should "leave the customs union, an intrinsic part of the EU." So much for May's attempts to get her colleagues to agree on a fudged solution. Her proposal is to enter into "a customs union," somehow collecting tariffs for the EU and still keeping "frictionless" borders after having left "the customs union." May is still hoping to get a bespoke deal with Brussels which will allow her a semantic double backflip at home. It all doesn't sound very likely.

Lords against the government, again

It is the seventh defeat the Lords inflicted on the government within two weeks. With a large majority, they voted for giving Parliament a decisive vote on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, including a "no deal" hard Brexit. This puts the lower house in the delicate position of having to vote down its own empowerment if it follows the government line on the EU withdrawal bill.

England House of Lords
When it comes to Brexit, the House of Lords has proven to be a thorn in May's sideImage: Getty Images/AFP/C. Court

In the Lords, the exchange between Remainers and Brexiteers was described as lively. One could even say pretty acrimonious. One liberal Peer equated May's attempt to block Parliament from having a meaningful vote on Brexit with Hitler's seizure of sweeping powers in the 1930s. "Let's just take a warning. We cannot let an enabling act in the UK lead to the catastrophe that happened in Berlin," said Lord Roberts of Landudno. This seems a bit far-fetched. Still Lord Fairfax of Cameron ranted that Roberts and friends were a "cozy cabal of Remain." Those proposing and supporting the amendment were "a fifth column for Mr. Barnier and the EU negotiators." Given that the Lords are largely of pensionable age, they show quite a lot of fighting spirit and diverse historical knowledge.

The Brexit press of course howled "Treason" again and Brexit minister David Davis expressed his "strong disappointment." And the trade minister, Liam Fox, could hardly contain his fury: The unelected peers of the upper house were "trying to block the democratic will of the people." Which Fox as a totally unelected minister is of course uniquely placed to implement.

No deal unless Ireland is satisfied

The EU's chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, had a truly heartwarming message in the Irish newspaper Independent. "No matter how big or small a country is in the EU, we stand by each other through thick and thin." You can hear the violins in the background.

Michel Barnier in Ireland
Barnier says it is up to the UK to come up with a solution to the Irish border issueImage: Reuters/C. Kilcoyne

But the love does not stretch to Britain: "Brexit created a specific problem in Ireland, so it's the UK's responsibility to come forward with workable solutions," said Barnier, who set forth on another solidarity visit to the so far invisible Irish border with Northern Ireland. The EU demands rapid progress before June when the next European summit must reach another "stepping stone" on the road to the withdrawal agreement. And no pressure at all, of course: Under these circumstances "a real risk remained of Britain leaving the bloc without an overall deal." This would be the Brexiteers' finest hour but probably pretty miserable for everybody else — the carmakers, pharma companies, airlines and so on.

We have now heard the argument ad nauseam. Either Northern Ireland is kept in the customs union and accepts large chunks of single market regulation — the so-called backstop the EU put into the proposal for the divorce agreement — or there will be a hard border. "The backstop is there not to change UK red lines but because of UK red lines," says Barnier. If a hard border on land is to be avoided it must run in the Irish Sea. The argument has been turned in and out and upside down and logically there seems to be no solution to suit May's requirements.

The only proposal the UK side has offered since March is some untested and hazy IT solution: "The Harry Potter border, sheer magic," as one British MEP has scoffed. The Northern Irish DUP is up in arms because of the "backstop."

"We have tried to get him to understand the Unionist position for the people of Northern Ireland," the party's leader, Arlene Foster, complained about Barnier. But she has no solution to bring to the table either. The stalemate continues. See you next time at the Irish border.