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May the survivor will plough on

May the survivor will plough on

Brexit rebels' rhetoric without substance

by Meghnad Desai in London

Wed 21 Nov 2018

Theresa May is still standing after last week's Cabinet battles. The British prime minister is more resilient, and has better cards in her hand, than many opponents think. My prediction is that she will survive to push the European Union withdrawal treaty through the House of Commons. This will be messy and complicated, but the outcome is fairly clear.

Either before or after the Commons vote next month (which may well result in rejection first time round), May should be able to glean from the other Europeans small but important modifications on the wording over Northern Ireland and on the UK's future relationship.

May's strengths are her apparent weakness and the lack of viable alternatives. May is much like the Brexit deal. Not to everyone's liking – but there is no better choice available.

Many say the political uproar is reminiscent of the 1956 Suez crisis, when an ill-fated Anglo-French military expedition in Egypt opposed by the Americans destabilised a previous Conservative government. There are parallels. Then, like now, the UK had no choice but to retreat. Now, as 62 years ago, Britain has to sign up and get back to making the best of a bad situation. Those on both sides of the Leave-Remain argument must understand how low the UK has fallen down the economic and political power rankings.

What better deal could the UK could have negotiated? Fantasies that Britain could win a relatively favourable trade agreement along the lines of the EU's accords with Norway and Canada, but otherwise have the leeway to behave as it wished, are just that – fantasies.

May has survived, not for the first time, by leveraging her feigned weakness. The past 12 months have witnessed constant mutterings about a Conservative party leadership contest, triggered through the chairman of the 1922 Committee receiving the magic number of 48 'no confidence letters' in his post bag. The number so far received is only half that required.

For all the bravura talk, it is possible rebel Tories' desire to be rid of May will never become manifest. John Major, May's 1990s predecessor, was under near-constant threat of ejection but stayed on for seven years. May currently has no credible replacement. She outwitted the Cabinet 'big beasts' when, after getting their agreement on the Chequers plan in July, she secured the resignations of hardline Brexiteers David Davis and Boris Johnson. She carried on with Dominic Raab, Davis' successor as Brexit secretary. All the time she was in charge via her leading civil servant negotiator Oliver 'Ollie' Robbins. Now Raab has gone too, claiming he was not consulted on the all-important small print of the deal.

Now that May has revealed her hand, all hell has broken loose. The Brexiteers have fantasised about some dream 'clean, hard Brexit' or even 'no deal Brexit' – but no one has made preparations for a genuine alternative strategy. The Brexiteers speak of opposing 'vassalage', 'taking back control', and clinching free trade deals as soon as the UK leaves. But that is rhetoric without substance.

Now that reality has struck home there is anger, confusion and bewilderment. Manufacturing production with just-in-time delivery means Britain has to stay in the customs union for the time being, whatever euphemism is used. Britain needs a transition period until it gets a semblance of a free trade agreement, which will take several years. In this time, Britain will simply have to put up with what some critics call 'vassalage'. Others might simply call it accepting sensible rules.

Perhaps May's clinching advantage is that she is the best option against Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour opposition. It's pure illusion to think anyone replacing her could produce a better bargain. The prudent course is to let her plough on with the deal and take the flak. That, after all, is what prime ministers are for.

Lord (Meghnad) Desai is Emeritus Professor of Economics at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and Chair of the OMFIF Advisers Council.

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