I confess to being incredibly naive. After the 23 June 2016 Brexit referendum when 1.7 million more Britons voted for ‘Leave’ than for ‘Remain’, I was confident the right-of-centre Conservative Party – or Tories – would deliver that outcome. It now looks, in substantive terms, that I may have been wrong. You see British Prime Minister Theresa May, after a lengthy Cabinet meeting at Chequers on July 6, gutted all the key points and advantages of Brexit in a whole-hearted attempt to deliver a ‘Remain in all but name’ outcome. In substance her plan is to lock Britain into virtually all things EU, while paying the EU a huge sum of money for ‘leaving’. Britain will supposedly adopt a ‘common rulebook’ with the EU on industrial goods and agricultural products. There will be ongoing alignment with EU rules for goods. ‘Due regard’ will be paid to EU case law, an obvious invitation to have the UK subject to the indirect jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) and something that Leavers were promised was a red line that would never, ever be crossed. New trade deals that Britain could negotiate for itself will in practice become impossible. Basically, Theresa May has sided with the Remainers in her Cabinet, proposing the softest possible Brexit to the point it doesn’t look like Brexit at all. For those of us who wanted a self-governing Britain with as much scope for making its own decisions as a Canada or an Australia this is a complete disgrace.
And here’s what you need to remember. While 52 per cent of Britons voted for Leave, 75 per cent of then MPs voted ‘Remain’ including well over 50 per cent of Tory MPs (about 177 of 318). But of actual Tory voters, it is estimated that 58 per cent voted for Leave. You can see the disconnect, right?
After the referendum then-Prime Minister David Cameron resigned, saying a Remainer could not properly negotiate leaving the EU. My God, the man was finally right about something! But in the referendum’s aftermath Michael Gove (a strong Leaver) stabbed Boris Johnson (another strong Leaver) in the back. The result was that the prime ministership was thereby opened up for a die-hard Remainer, Theresa May. This is the woman who till then had been one of the most incompetent and pusillanimous Home Office Cabinet Ministers ever – every time the judges blocked the extradition of some ne’er-do-well (often on ‘keeping the family together’ Human Rights Act grounds), May rolled over and capitulated. The size of the fight in the dog was about zero, a trait these negotiations with the EU have corroborated.
Another factor was Yes, Minister-style resistance from the British bureaucracy that leaned almost totally towards Remain. Meanwhile, the EU played hardball – pay us for leaving before we start negotiations they demanded, while making no compromises on anything at all – and May just jumped as high as Brussels demanded. The finished product May presented is exactly what you’d expect from people who didn’t believe in what they were attempting to achieve. (Think of, say, the ABC trying to frame a right- of-centre argument or Malcolm Turnbull attempting to defend coal.)
Of course, it is also true that May’s Cabinet was far more Remain than the wider Tory party room, which in turn was far more Remain than the party’s members and volunteers. For the first half day after the Chequers meeting it looked as though all the big Leavers in Cabinet would roll over and just cave in. But then David Davis resigned from Cabinet on the grounds this supposed deal was a complete sell-out of Brexit. A half day later Boris Johnson resigned too, if anything being even more critical of Theresa May’s deal and likening it to a turd sandwich. Two junior ministers also resigned. Jacob Rees-Mogg, a very smart backbencher May refuses to promote – sound familiar any of you right-winger MPs in Malcolm Turnbull’s party room? – has already said this Theresa May deal is worse than no deal at all and leaves Britain ‘a vassal state’. That is where things stand as I write this column at noon on Tuesday. Many on the Tory backbench are in near open revolt. It is not at all clear if they will collect the 48 needed names and pull the leadership trigger, or back down. As you read this you will have a much better idea whether that is likely to transpire and whether other Brexiteers are doing what needs to be done to salvage Brexit, and quite possibly the Tory party.
But all in all these are very depressing times. John O’Sullivan wrote (the day before the Chequers Cabinet meeting) in National Review that Theresa May’s proposals were a disaster and a betrayal; that picking a name from a hat to replace May would be an improvement; and that ‘it’s hard to imagine the Tory party surviving as a united patriotic national party’ if this is what it tries to sell its voters. As for me, I have long said that the Brexit vote was the best vote of my life. Now I’m not so sure.
This disconnect between right-leaning voters and supposedly right-leaning political parties is not limited to Britain. You see it too in Canada, New Zealand, and most blatantly here in Australia. Malcolm Turnbull, George Brandis, Christopher Pyne, and virtually all the women Cabinet ministers in Team Turnbull are living proof of it.
I suppose deep down that is the core attraction of US President Donald Trump, the master disruptor. For all his vulgarianism and lack of couth, Trump is doing what right-wing voters who elected him overwhelmingly wanted him to do. In fact, he’s kept more campaign promises than any president since Calvin Coolidge, a fact Never Trumpers hate but can’t deny. Indeed the only campaign promises Trump hasn’t kept are ones Republican legislators from his own party refuse to enact. Just last week Trump nominated yet another fantastic Supreme Court judge, a better record on that score than even Reagan! So maybe the most important vote of my life wasn’t the Brexit referendum but rather the election of Donald Trump five months later.
At any rate, back to Theresa May and Brexit. If anything approaching this Brexit capitulation package gets locked in by the Tories in their negotiations with the EU it will in my view see the Tories slaughtered in the next election.
So let’s hope that Theresa May soon gets rolled as leader. If you favoured Brexit you’d better hope so, too.
Subscribe to The Spectator Australia today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator Australia for less – just $1 for 6 weeks