Now May must communicate and campaign
UK leader’s main problems are with the Tories
by Joergen Oerstroem Moeller in Singapore
Mon 11 Dec 2017
Theresa May, the British prime minister, and the European Union have shown they both want a ‘good’ agreement over UK withdrawal from the EU. The Brussels deal struck on 8 December after much tortuous negotiation underlines how all sides are willing and able to strike compromises furthering mutual interests.
Many problems remain. May must balance competing factions and interests in the different regional components of the UK, all disparately affected by Brexit. By far the most arduous negotiations will take place inside the Tory party. May must bridge divisions between hard-core Brexiteers, hard-core Remainers and a large group willing to accept a ‘good’ deal.
So far, recriminations and petty-minded arguments have been kept at bay. May deserves credit for having played a relatively poor hand rather well. Over the weekend, Conservative Brexiteers have lined up to support her. After much speculation about her perceived weakness, May appears in greater control of her party than many thought.
The EU leadership is clearly scared of the prospect that ‘no deal’ could bring a new, unpredictable UK prime minister. May – if she is adroit – can use this asset to great advantage in the months ahead.
Contrary to many comments, the EU gave in more than Britain. The estimated Brexit divorce cost of £35-£39bn is less than expected. Setting a time limit for the role of the European Court of Justice in settling disputes about EU citizens living in Britain has no precedent.
The Irish border agreement will turn out to contain messy compromises, but finding a form of words that satisfies the EU and the Irish Republic as well as Northern Irish and Tory hardliners is no mean achievement.
The coming EU-Britain negotiations will be technically horrendously difficult. There is no shortage of smaller issues that could upset the entire undertaking. But political will exists to overcome them. The EU is a machine for grinding out solutions to problems, provided all parties want to settle.
Many of these basic difficulties stem from within the UK. Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are not disposed to compromise in the same way. The politicians in these parts of the UK have an existential interest in defending the requirements of their constituencies.
The Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland – propping up May’s minority government at Westminster – is a prime exemplar. The DUP is committed to keeping Northern Ireland 100% in the UK. If that is not guaranteed, the party is prepared to wreck a Brexit agreement, whatever the cost.
Scotland will maintain its tough stance to stay in the single market. The Scottish National Party, unlike the DUP, cannot for the moment determine majorities in the House of Commons. But if Scotland is seen as losing from Brexit, it may affect the stance of the 13 Tory MPs in Scotland, including Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservative leader and a potential May successor. This could badly underline the prime minister.
Much will depend on May’s communicative and campaigning skills, where she up to now has shown no evident prowess. May must redouble efforts to show she can steer Brexit to a result that will benefit all parts of the UK. If belief grows that she is truly capturing the mood of the nation, May can outmanoeuvre the many recalcitrant groups she faces. But the prime Minister and her cabinet will have to show hitherto unseen unity, strength and purpose. If she stumbles, several ministers will be only too happy to see her fall.
May has won an important respite – but no clinching victory. The prospect of early elections in Britain – which could bring in a Labour government – looks dimmer than last week, but it has not disappeared.
Joergen Oerstroem Moeller is Senior Research Fellow, ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, and a former State Secretary at the Danish foreign ministry.
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