With eight months until the UK leaves the EU, there’s more confusion than ever before
At the point where the UK should be gearing up for the final stage of talks relating to their forthcoming departure from the European Union, it appears more divided than ever before as to how this should be achieved - and if anyone was in any doubt about whether that would be the case, the resignation of Brexit Secretary David Davis, on Sunday night, proved it.
With just eight months until the UK exits the bloc, the departure of Davis - as his title suggests, the overseer of all things Brexit - is akin to Spain losing their coach on the eve of the World Cup.
So how significant is this development?
Why has David Davis resigned as Brexit Secretary?
The move comes in the wake of last week’s meeting at Chequers, the country house of the Prime Minister, where Theresa May assembled her cabinet to finally decide what path to take in the forthcoming crucial final round of talks with the EU.
Up until this point, she had attempted to keep her divided party together by essentially trying to keep two options on the table for what the new trading arrangement will be when the UK leaves the EU: one, a ‘customs partnership’, which would have seen goods coming in to the UK charged EU tariffs, which would then either be refunded if they stayed in the UK, or passed on to Brussels if they went on to the EU; and the other a Maximum Facilitation, or ‘Max Fac’ arrangement, which would have meant that the UK would have been outside any formal customs arrangement, but which would have used technology to remove the need for customs checks and thus avoid a hard border in Ireland.
The former was preferred by Remainers, and by Theresa May, since it avoided a hard border in Ireland, but was seen as unacceptable by Brexiters, including David Davis who viewed it as still remaining within the EU’s orbit - they preferred the latter option, which was criticised by Remainers since, regardless of technology, it was still technically a hard border - a situation which would threaten the Good Friday Agreement. Both, however, had previously been ruled out as acceptable by the EU.
Suddenly, though, prior to last week’s meeting, a third way was suggested - a ‘facilitated customs arrangement’. This would see goods charged at the UK tariff at the border - instead of the EU rate - and then if they were then sent on to Europe, they would then be charged the EU tariff upon exit. However, Britain would be beholden not to deviate from EU standards on goods, so would not be able to change regulations in any other trade deal. Thus, any new trade deals that the UK agreed with other countries would see us able to alter our tariffs, but not our standards. Brexiters, of course, want a clear break to give us maximum freedom to alter whatever we desire.
Nonetheless, this was agreed by May’s cabinet on Sunday as the accepted plan for negotiations with Brussels. For their part, however, with the UK seemingly aiming to align with Europe on goods, but not on services, it is - once again - highly likely that it would be rejected by the EU anyway.
So far, so complicated, but with FCA seemingly the best fudge on all sides, surely a way forward, for the time being at least, had been agreed.
But then David Davis resigned, with FCA deemed unacceptable to him, saying it would leave Parliament with “at best a weak negotiating position” in the upcoming talks over the UK’s future relationship with Europe.
Many Remainers had criticised Davis throughout the Brexit process thus far, with the MP repeatedly appearing to turn up to meetings having not prepared, and being accused of misleading parliament over the publishing - or even the existence of - papers on the potential economic impact of possible outcomes of Britain leaving the EU.
Where does this leave Brexit?
In short, in total confusion, with several possible routes for what happens next.
Theresa May has now replaced Davis with Brexiter, and former justice minister, Dominic Raab - and is clearly attempting to soldier on with a divided-but-begrudgingly-agreeing cabinet. However, as mentioned before, the EU is highly likely to reject FCA outright, or see it as an opening gambit for negotiations, which will end with an offer even less amenable to hardline Brexiters, so a new split could come further down the line.
The current situation could well escalate in the coming days, with journalist Nick Cohen suggesting that Boris Johnson, and other Brexiters, may resign over the agreement as well. He tweeted: “If you think that he puts career before country (and I do), then Johnson has to resign. He can’t allow Davis to outflank him on the Brexit right, and be left in the middle, neither a leaver nor a remainer, mistrusted by all”.
Whatever Raab’s qualities, he will be coming into the job afresh, and with only eight months to attempt to grapple with the enormous detail involved - a huge task, regardless of who is appointed.
Ultimately, the fact that the UK cannot seem to agree within itself on any sort of route forward, let alone one that is acceptable to the EU, meaning that the possibility of crashing out of the EU on 29 March 2019 without a deal - and the ensuing chaos that would cause - has moved a step closer.
Where does this leave Theresa May?
The Spectator is already describing this as the ‘biggest political crisis that May has faced since the last general election’. Brexiters unhappy with May’s policy of trying to fudge things along to try and placate both wings of her party may well try to issue a vote of no confidence in her, which could trigger a leadership contest in the Conservative Party; one that May could win, but could equally lose. Whatever happens, she has seen six ministers resign in the last 249 days, while even before Davis resigned 69% of Brits believed that Brexit was going badly.
If May were to lose a confidence vote and be replaced by a new Prime Minister, there would be calls for a new general election, and and almost certainly a new referendum on Europe.
Hardline Brexiters are thus caught between pursuing their ideological dreams of cutting off completely from Europe, or risking the loss of power were Labour to win any ensuing general election - or even both, should Labour win an election and trigger a second referendum.
As ever, it is extremely difficult to predict exactly what will happen next, but a resolution appears further away than ever before.