People's Vote 15 November 2018 | 10:12

Brexit Deal-Watch – Raab strikes the first blow

15 November 2018 10:12

‘Just when I thought I was out, they drag me back in.’ Michael Corleone, The Godfather Part III

Look, none of this was my idea, okay?  I was a strong champion of Remain cause during the 2016 referendum, and was dismayed by the vote for Leave. 

But here we are – after many false dawns, a deal has indeed been struck with Brussels. And yet this morning, Dominic Raab, the very Cabinet minister responsible for its negotiation, has resigned from Theresa May’s government. Confused? You should be.

Raab’s departure – a mere four months after he replaced his close ally David Davis in the role – is a deadly blow to the Prime Minister, to her prospects of survival and to the viability of the deal. It is like a general quitting mid-battle on the grounds that his orders are unsound, or a surgeon leaving the operating table because he believes the proposed procedure will harm the patient. 

In particular, his framing of May’s failure as ‘a matter of public trust’ is a devastating verdict upon her management of both Brexit and the Government. Raab’s objections are not only technical. He declares in terms that the PM is now in breach of her own manifesto. This is not only a lethal accusation against May herself. It is an implicit call to Raab’s former Cabinet colleagues to examine their own consciences.

This is more than a vicious Westminster soap opera, or a pub fight between tedious Tories. Be in no doubt: the fate of this deal is going to determine what sort of country we live in for decades to come, and, whoever you are, will have an appreciable effect upon your life. Yes, you.

If the 585-page agreement sounds technical and boring, that’s because it is. But so are the safety checks on a commercial airliner or the internal technology of an MRI scanner: and nobody disputes their importance. So don’t allow yourselves to be sedated by tedium into thinking that this doesn’t affect you. It really does – especially if you are young.

So – as we did last month during ‘Brexit Crunch Week’ – we’ll be posting regularly to keep you in the loop and to explain why you should try not to doze off when you see another politician on your screen, explaining why he or she is absolutely right (as opposed to his or her opponents, who are – naturally – absolutely wrong).

The story so far:

‘Impassioned’: that’s how Theresa May described the five-hour Cabinet meeting that yielded a fragile agreement in favour of the deal. What she meant was: at least ten of her senior colleagues had expressed serious reservations about the document, its contents and its political viability. Esther McVey, the Work and Pensions Secretary, was reportedly left in tears when her request for a formal vote was slapped down by officials. Now that Raab has gone (hours after the junior Northern Ireland minister, Shailesh Vara), McVey and Penny Mordaunt, the International Development Secretary – both Brexiteers – will be weighing their own options.

What about Parliament? MPs will now be granted a ‘meaningful vote’ on the deal, probably in early December. There will be plenty of argument about what precise form that vote should take. But the greater question is purely arithmetic: does May have the votes to win parliamentary support? Nobody that I have spoken to privately believes that she does. Her working majority – including the 10 Democratic Unionist MPs that prop up her minority government – is only 13. But the DUP has already made clear that it will not endorse the agreement. There are plenty of Tory Brexiteers and some Remainers who are bound to vote against. The Labour whips are confident that, barring one or two mavericks, the Opposition will reject the deal en bloc. If any DRUGSTORE CULTURE reader can work out how the numbers add up for May, please let us know.

What are the main beefs? How long have you got? The principal objection – prominent in Raab’s resignation letter – is that the deal will leave the UK suspended in a constitutional and commercial limbo. For as long as the question of the Irish border remains unresolved – indefinitely, perhaps – the UK will remain part of the EU Customs Union, and, in many respects, subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. It is hard to exaggerate how appalling this prospect is to the DUP and hard Brexiteers. Many Remainers (such as Jo Johnson, who resigned as a minister last week) concur that it makes no sense to play the hokey cokey with the EU – one foot in, one foot out – a rule-taker, but no longer a rule-maker. What May calls a compromise, others call a bad deal that satisfies nobody. 

Is May safe? No. On last night’s Newsnight, theTory MP for Newton Abbot, Anne Marie Morris, claimed that the 48 letters from her colleagues required to trigger a vote of confidence in May’s leadership have already been lodged (since some were handed in a while back, their present status has to be double-checked). What this means is that the door of the nuclear silos have been opened but the launch codes have not yet been entered. Every Tory MP – even the most doctrinally-committed Brexiteer – knows that a leadership contest would be a nightmarish, introspective distraction that would do little for what remains of the Conservative Party’s reputation. But it could certainly happen. The mood of the Tory tribe today is desolate – there is no ticker tape parade for the prime minister returning with a historic diplomatic deal. Quite the opposite.

What about Labour? Jeremy Corbyn wants a general election. That is the principal driver of Labour policy on Brexit. Most of his backbenchers are Remainers, and many (like DRUGSTORE CULTURE) support a People’s Vote as a brake on the rush towards the Brexit cliff. But Corbyn wants to say as much is necessary to force May to go to the country but as little as possible to threaten his party’s ambiguous position (intentionally and shamelessly vague, intended to keep Brexiteers and Remainers inside Labour’s electoral coalition).

Is the deal already toast? Logic suggests that it is. The only countervailing force is the modest momentum that May now has on her side. Already, MPs are being told by the PM’s team that to sabotage the agreement would do great damage to the UK’s global position, destabilise the markets and increase business uncertainty. In her Downing Street statement last night, May was quite clear. There are now only three options: her deal, no deal or no Brexit (her code for a People’s Vote, whose outcome is unknowable). The impatient instruction to ‘just get on with it’ is a pretty flimsy basis upon which to transform the entire country’s commercial and constitutional arrangements, leave the world’s largest single market, and jeopardise the Union. 

But it is also a very British instinct to complain about dithering and delay: in their constituencies this weekend, MPs will be told by many of their constituents that it is time to draw stumps and to get on with other tasks. May’s best ally right now is the public’s sheer boredom. It is a dismal primary asset – but it is all that she has got. Raab has seen to it that she cannot even claim solid Cabinet backing as she did last night.

Sorry to say, but there is a lot more of this to come, and it really matters. More as we have it.