Theresa May holds all the cards on Brexit – including the jokers

The British Election Study found that 6 per cent of Leave voters had regrets about the way they voted, while only 1 per cent of Remainers had

John Rentoul
Sunday 09 October 2016 11:13 BST
Prime Minister Theresa May speaking to the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham on Wednesday
Prime Minister Theresa May speaking to the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham on Wednesday (Joe Giddens/PA)

The Remainers are fighting back. So appalled are they by a Conservative Party conference proclaiming an anti-immigration message that some of them are talking again of resisting the Prime Minister’s vision of a hard Brexit – and others of trying to stop Britain leaving the EU altogether.

I doubt that the resistance will succeed. Theresa May is in a stronger position than many people realise. But one of the least convincing lines in her speech last Sunday was that “the referendum result was clear”. You do not have to be a last-ditch Remainer to wonder whether a 52 per cent vote was a clear enough mandate for something as big as leaving the EU.

Some Leavers might even notice that the British Election Study carried out after the referendum found that 6 per cent of Leave voters had “regrets about the way you voted”, while only 1 per cent of Remainers had. Which would mean, if they acted on their regrets, that a re-run of the referendum might have gone 51 per cent to 49 per cent the other way.

Hence brave talk of “standing up for the 48 per cent”, and against May’s attempt to interpret the mandate of the referendum as a decisive vote against any kind of close relationship with the EU. And hence the significance of one part of Jeremy Corbyn’s reshuffle.

Naturally, every change to Labour’s front bench could matter in mysterious and unforeseeable ways when history reaches the point when Labour returns to the centre ground. The changes matter for the state of the trench warfare that Corbyn pretends not to want but which he is determined to fight through all the institutions of the party – in particular the question of who fills the three places nominated by the shadow Cabinet on Labour’s National Executive. One gain for the forces of Corbyn on Friday (Jonathan Ashworth replaced by Kate Osamor) tilts the balance on the National Executive from 18-17 against Corbyn to 18-17 in his favour.

UK: Theresa May lays out post-Brexit plan at party conference

But the other important appointment was that of Keir Starmer as shadow Brexit Secretary. Starmer, elected MP for Holborn and St Pancras last year, is a former director of public prosecutions. He campaigned for Remain and, as far as I know, he has conventional pro-EU views – unlike Corbyn, whose ambivalence about EU membership prompted Labour MPs to revolt and Owen Smith to challenge him for the leadership.

Starmer has been talked about as a possible leader himself, and this is a post that could be the making or the breaking of him. But will he put himself at the head of the resistance against May’s hard Brexit, or will he take Corbyn’s line of accepting the referendum result while arguing for workers’ rights?

Smith tried the “Euro-resistance” approach in the leadership campaign, with his promise of a second referendum. Tony Blair seemed to be arguing for it in his Esquire interview on Friday: “It’s a tragedy for British politics if the choice before the country is a Conservative government going for a hard Brexit and an ultra-left Labour Party that believes in a set of policies that takes us back to the Sixties.”

So far, however, the only real opposition to the Prime Minister’s Brexit policy has come from the financial markets. I remember “Conservatives try to halt sterling slide” was the lead headline of the first edition of The Independent 30 years ago. That was in a Tory party conference week too. And the pound is at about the same level against the dollar today as it was then, which may suggest that we shouldn’t panic yet.

The problem with the EU resistance is that Theresa May holds all the cards. There is no theatre in which the battle against hard Brexit can be fought. Parliament cannot decide the terms of the EU deal and nor is there likely to be an election fought on the question.

Once Article 50 has been triggered, HMS Britain is on the slipway and there is nothing that can stop it hitting the water two years later. As I have said before, I don’t think the court case that opens on Thursday will rule that Parliament has to vote on Article 50, and, even if it did, Parliament would vote to trigger it.

After that, negotiating treaties is a matter for Government, not Parliament. When the deal is negotiated, it will come back to Parliament but then, as MPs discovered during the Maastricht Treaty ratification in 1992-93, they face an all-or-nothing choice. Then, they had to ratify Maastricht or bring down John Major’s government. This time, they will have to ratify the deal or choose not to have a deal at all, in which case the UK will still leave the EU, but without the cornucopia of favourable trading terms that David Davis will by then have negotiated.

That is all there is. The Prime Minister may be vulnerable to defeats in the House of Commons on all sorts of things – the boundary changes come to mind – but Brexit isn’t one of them. Once Article 50 is triggered, by the end March, we are leaving the EU within two years – and on terms to be decided by May in negotiation with the 27 other EU governments. Parliament and commentators, even if they are former prime ministers, will have no say. They may not like her making clear that cutting immigration from the EU is a condition of the deal and that, therefore, there is no prospect of the UK staying in the single market. But it is hard to argue that the referendum was not a vote for lower immigration.

We are leaving the EU on Theresa May’s terms and there is nothing anyone can do about it.

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