Tories in trouble on Brexit

Photo caption: Tory ministers: Liam Fox, Boris Johnson & David Davis

By Ian Richardson

The open warfare in the Tory Party with leaks from the Cabinet discussions and Ministers briefing against each other may be suspended temporarily during the summer holidays. But the Tories are in disarray on the decisive issue of Brexit, and their crisis is likely to deepen and hostilities resume ahead of the party conferences.


The EU’s negotiators insist that there must be at least a framework agreement on three key issues before any other aspects of Brexit can be discussed. These are the reciprocal rights for EU and UK citizens, the magnitude of the ‘divorce bill’ and the question of the changing status of the border in Ireland. They say that so far the UK has only made an unsatisfactory offer on the first of these, and proposed nothing on the other issues.

On EU nationals, the Tories are pursuing a reactionary agenda, hoping to limit their rights as far as possible and remove any external guarantor, such as the European Court of Justice. This is not acceptable to the EU, nor to EU citizens in this country – and would lead to tit for tat problems for UK citizens resident in other EU countries.

At the same time, the Tories have not at all prepared public opinion for the likelihood that the UK will be obliged to make a very large payment for the ‘divorce bill’. Despite the bluster of those like Boris Johnson who said the EU could ‘go whistle’ for the divorce bill, in reality in the end the UK will have to cough up, because this is about budgetary commitments that have already been entered into by the EU including the UK. As no EU contributor country is willing to increase its contributions to meet the shortfall created by the UK, and those countries that are net recipients of these EU financial commitments are not willing to accept that they suddenly lose contributions that they have planned upon, all are united in insisting the UK meets a substantial share of its existing forward commitments.

Finally, the Irish border question is enormous; the problems of a workable solution demonstrate the whole issue of Brexit in microcosm.

The Tories’ failure to show any real understanding of the issues have succeeded in uniting all countries of the EU against the British position, and there is clearly a growing irritation with the UK negotiators who are described as delusional, arrogant and ill-prepared even in the British press.

Big business is increasingly anxious about Brexit because of loss of market access, and are more willing to campaign against it. Some businesses are preparing to move jobs to Europe, including a number of large banks and other finance companies. Despite BMW’s welcome decision to proceed with making the electric Mini in the UK, other car-makers, including the head of the German car makers, have warned that if the UK went outside the Single Market the resulting tariffs and severing of supply chains would inevitably lead to relocation. Half of all cars made in Britain are for export, mainly to Europe. There are 170,000 jobs in the UK car industry and well over 800,000 if supply chains are included.

In response to these rising pressures, the government’s official position has shifted and there is now acceptance of the need for a transitional period between Brexit in 2019 and the implementation of any new arrangements. While this looks to have killed off the ridiculous ‘no deal’ option touted by May, others in the Tory party remain on this line. And there is open disagreement within the government about whether the transition should be two years, four years, or longer.

However, accepting the need for a transitional period does not alter the fundamental damage that would be done by leaving the Single Market. Unless the terms of an agreement are favourable, and until they are agreed, the UK will be a uniquely unattractive place to invest. In the nine months since the referendum vote there has been no increase in business investment at all.

While the Tories have been able to contain these differences for the time being, subordinating them to their greater common interest in avoiding an early general election with the possibility of a further loss of Tory seats and their nightmare of a Corbyn-led anti-austerity government, the fundamental fissures in the ranks of the Tories keep being driven open by the issues raised in the course of the Brexit negotiations. It remains to be seen whether the Tories can summon sufficient discipline to maintain this over the weeks and months ahead.