Tory backbenchers are currently feeling much aggrieved over the recent turn of events in the Brexit process. With multiple options available to them, the main question that they will have to answer is whether ousting prime minister Theresa May will result in any kind of better outcome.
In particular, backbenchers face two basic problems: They lack a “unity candidate” to replace her, and they lack a “unity plan” to replace what the government has put on the negotiating table.
On the former, the return to the backbench of Boris Johnson provides little help, given his poor showing as foreign secretary and as a constituency MP. He is lacking the same draw that positioned him so strongly before the EU referendum in 2016.
On the latter, it has been easy to pick holes in May’s approach, but impossible to articulate a viable alternative. The closest is that of a “no-deal” exit, whereby the UK leaves the EU without any kind of agreement in place to govern its future dealings with the bloc. But this is an ever less common position, as the costs and uncertainties of just walking away become clearer.
So the risks to May from her backbench are present, but potentially containable.
The same cannot be said of the next stage in this process. The UK government must now present its white paper on its Brexit proposal to EU negotiators and, as the European Commission has indicated for a long time now, there are limits to what it will agree with the UK. The EU wants to preserve the value of membership for its members and to avoid any unpicking of the compromises built up over many decades.
We already know that parts of the UK plan don’t fit within those limits – especially the suggestion that the UK Court of Justice should have a role in interpreting agreements with the EU as well as European institutions.
Any attempt to subdivide the single market by splitting up goods, services and people is also unlikely to have much traction. So what will matter is how the Commission and EU communicate that.
The EU’s next move
There is a good understanding in Brussels of the pressures that the British government faces right now. It is also keen to avoid a change of government, which would severely disrupt negotiations and potentially lead to a harder stance from the UK side. That suggests that Brussels will seek to talk up the points of agreement from the white paper rather than those of disagreement – but it’s a tricky line to follow.
Importantly, while the Commission represents the EU in the talks, it does not mean others cannot express their views. Each of the EU27 leaders has their own set of domestic pressures to deal with – and attacking some aspect of the Brexit talks might prove a low-cost way of gaining some kudos back home. That’s true for those who are strongly pro-EU, but also the more sceptical voices who want to use Brexit as a leverage to change or improve their own relationship with Brussels.
But even if the initial reaction can be dressed up, neither side can avoid the point in negotiations where further concessions are required to reach an agreement.
That does not intrinsically mean just the UK conceding ground, but given the relative inflexibility of the EU and the relative chaos of the UK position we would expect the weight of movement to come from the UK side of the table.
As and when that happens, May will find herself once more at the mercy of her cabinet and her backbench. If Labour decides that its priority is party political advantage, rather than securing a particular Brexit deal, then it may well aid and abet May’s internal opponents. That might mean indicating it won’t support any deal secured by May, or by calling for a motion of confidence.
May’s best hope is that she is able to ride out the immediate rough water and get the white paper deeply embedded into the negotiations during the summer. That way she can play to a narrative of “there is no alternative” – and thus no point in removing her from office.
If this sounds like thin gruel, then that is because it is. The continuing absence of a strategic, profound and public debate about what country the UK wants to be – and thus what its relationship with the EU should look like – means that the prime approach of the government has been crisis management.
The key point is that management alone isn’t enough to resolve crises. Without thinking some bigger thoughts, the government will find itself bouncing from crisis point to crisis point until well past next March.