One hundred years ago this week the great spring offensive of the German empire fizzled out, doomed by overreach and ineffective supply chains. The offensive was designed to bring an end to the stalemate of World War I, a last ditch effort to break the bloody, stagnant, log-jam of the previous four years of trench warfare before the Americans arrived en masse to save the day. Though considered a tactical victory, in the end it failed. Germany was defeated within six months.
Theresa May tried something similar over the last week. First there was the summit at Chequers, the PM’s pad in the country, then the launch of a white paper to finally lay out the UK’s position on Brexit. Knowing she faced rebellion in her own party she invited opposition MPs from the rival Labour, Scottish National and Liberal Democrats to review, discuss and (please, pretty, pretty, please) support. It failed.
The white paper promised a Custom’s Union in all but name, an end to the Free Movement of People that retained some free movement (principally temporary and skilled workers, students) and the pushing forward of a Single Market for goods (but not services), all under the umbrella of a formal Association Agreement. A starting position for negotiations with the EU (one that should have been put in place beforeArticle 50 was triggered, noteight months before we are due to leave!)
At first there seemed to be a modicum of acquiescence. Then the resignations started and the Hard Right European Research Group (ERG) wing of the UK Tory Party went ballistic. Events moved quickly. The Tory Party descended into the familiar tropes of Britain becoming a vassal state and a colony of the EU, now supported by Labour supporting Remainers. All made the point that we would be rule takers but not rule makers. They even rehashed Boris Johnson’s old musings about staying in the EU being better than Soft Brexit.
So, with the Tory party split, the Labour Party was left sitting back, safe in the current knowledge that they will oppose any agreement brought forward by Theresa May since it cannot meet their tests (have cake and eat it, sorry, leave but retain all benefits). Since the smaller parties do not have the fire power to do anything without one of the big beasts, the UK faces a complete stalemate. If politics is at its heart a numbers game, then currently within the House of Commons there appears to be:
No majority for a soft Brexit
No majority for a hard Brexit
No majority for no deal
No majority for staying in the EU
Since one of those eventualities is certain, something will have to give, or be received. Most likely one of the two extremes. Stay or completely go.
One school of thought is that May will be challenged in a vote of no confidence. I don’t think this is likely, the ERG have the numbers on paper (claiming eighty MP members with 48 being the magic number needed to trigger an internal ballot), but at present she will win it, and win it comfortably. I don’t think the majority of Tory MPs want to risk opening up the leadership election to their membership, having seen Labour members elect the left-wing firebrand, Jeremy Corbyn. They know that the rabid Brexiteer and (rabid) Catholic MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, would be the likely shoe in if the Tory grassroots had their say, that, or (shudder) Boris Johnson.
So the Tory Party will not fundamentally change position, but, such is the nature of negotiations, will likely soften the Brexit deal further as talks continue. Watch Liam Fox resign when it becomes apparent that the UK will never be able to enter into its own trade agreements outside the confines of the EU.
That leaves the Labour Party. At some point it will have to vote and Labour is in a quandary. 70% of its members favour Remaining in the EU. A majority of its voters favour leaving. The party, being in opposition, has, as is its right, fudged the question. There will likely be a vote at the autumn party conference to soften the Brexit stance, how such a vote (if it were to be passed) will be translated by the Parliamentary Party remains to be seen. Jeremy Corbyn has been anti-EU forever, it will be interesting to see how democratic his new Labour Party really is if he doesn’t like the inflicted policy result.
In the end, the only way I can see the stalemate being broken is either through a General Election, where one party splits away from its current position and/or wins decisively (unlikely), or a new referendum where one of the positions is to remain in the EU. Indeed, punting this back to the people in some form is likely to be the only option to settle this now. That will entail trying to extend the Article 50 time frame which will require unanimity across the whole European bloc, while also persuading the EU to allow the UK to keep all the opt-outs we have negotiated over the years.
The UK is destined for months, maybe years, of trench warfare. A feeling that I am sure the German high-command had in the summer of 1918. What happened next was General Ferdinand Foch, the French Supreme Allied Commander, started the Hundred Days Counter Offensive. He seized the initiative, took leadership and ran. Starting with the Second Battle of Marne the rout led to a strategic allied victory completed by November 1918. Four years of bloody stalemate finished in a few months. In the end it was over by Christmas, just like Brexit is supposed to be. When Parliament returns from its summer recess there will be approximately one hundred days to get an agreement in place. One hundred days until we risk crashing out. To stop that happening the UK will require a leader who can find the political gap, leadership and the courage to change: the UK needs a modern day Foch.
A New Feature: Here’s what I've been listening to this week to escape the heat, Trump, Brexit and to recover from the World Cup: