The next five days will go a long way in determining how Brexit eventually plays out for the British people. It is a week that will be dominated by two speeches from Jeremy Corbyn on Monday and Theresa May on Friday, as well as by the release of the EU protocol of the December agreement that concluded Phase One of the talks.
This is only the very high-level summary of events and there are also other key players and actions that could influence the week. However, I am focusing on these three critical dynamics as they may also determine the future of Theresa May as Prime Minister.
May is currently under pressure from both flanks of her party, as well as from the Labour opposition who have returned to polling ahead of the Conservatives, after a short recent blip…
Until recently most of the pressure came from the pro-Brexit side of the party with Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, Liam Fox all pushing May to pursue a “hard” Brexit which they believed would allow Britain to sign mutually beneficial free trade agreements around the globe.
Of late, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Tory backbencher, who heads up the European Research Group, has become the most vocal advocate of this from of Brexit through some savvy media appearances and his bi-weekly blog on Conservative Home, aptly named the Moggcast.
While this group have been focused and efficient in their lobbying, they simply don’t have the MP numbers to lead the party (there were 62 MP signatures on a recent letter addressed to the Prime Minister) but could force a leadership contest for the Tories (48 MP letters required).
More worrying for Theresa May is the recent re-invigorated onslaught from the pro-EU side of her party under the likes of Anna Soubry and Sarah Wollaston. Soubry’s proposed new clause 5 in the Trade Bill is potentially very damaging to May’s authority as it is a motion for the UK to remain in a customs union with the EU, if not the customs union.
This clause was also signed by Chuka Umunna, the Labour MP who has been very vocal on Brexit. Any customs union agreement with the EU will severely impede on Britain’s ability to conclude free trade deals with third party nations.
This brings me to the first of the two speeches this week. Jeremy Corbyn announced last week that he would make a speech, laying out his party’s vision for Brexit. In recent times, Corbyn has remained quite coy on what Labour’s official policy for Brexit is. It has exposed Corbyn to quite a lot of flak, particularly from its young and London based voters, who typically voted Remain.
The rumours coming out of the party are that Corbyn will call for a customs union with the EU. This will potentially give Soubry’s clause the numbers to pass in Westminster, inflicting a heavy defeat on May and a major victory for those seeking a soft Brexit. Keir Starmer and Emily Thornberry, two potential future leaders of the party, have both hinted that this will be part of Corbyn’s speech.
It has rarely been that straightforward with anything Brexit-related though. While many Labour supporters voted Leave, backing a customs union would be popular with the majority of his party and could finally differentiate Labour’s strategy from that of the Conservatives, who have continually ruled out a post-Brexit customs Union.
However, Corbyn has been unconvincing in his defence of the European Union and his previous track record of votes in relation to Europe is far from emphatically pro-EU. His style is also not one of bombastic, engaging speeches that capture the imagination and I am quite worried that today may be a damp squib that hands the initiative back to Theresa May on Friday.
May supposedly had a very successful Brexit subcommittee cabinet meeting at Chequers last Thursday where she managed to keep both factions happy and onside. Very little of what was agreed was leaked to the press and we may have to wait until her Friday speech for the detail. It may be that May has come up with a plan that keeps the party united and has found a way around the Irish border issue, one of the major sticking points an almost any proposed plan thus far.
This issue is a about to get a lot more complex on Wednesday when the College of 27 EU Commissioners sign off on a draft legal text of the December Phase 1 agreement. Tony Connolly, from Ireland’s national broadcaster RTE, is reporting here that it will only include the reference to avoid the hard border on the island of Ireland (paragraph 49) and not paragraph 50 which made reference no border down the Irish Sea. This was inserted after pushback from the DUP, who prop up the British government.
If this is the case, then May will be severely limited by this agreement. It will be very interesting to note if any of her Friday demands explicitly contradict the agreement or if May will simply acquiesce to the EU’s rules of negotiation.
Simple acceptance could be fatal for May’s premiership if Corbyn has offered a compelling alternative and the EU have effectively ruled out most of her “fudge” options that have kept party together.
It promises to be a very exciting week of drama, political brinkmanship and intrigue. I am now going to sit back and watch it all unfold…