Long before he became US president, Richard Nixon observed after touring India that the wonder was not that India was badly governed but that it was governed at all. That remark could more appropriately be made now about Britain in which both the ruling and opposition parties are torn apart by bitter internal wars. As for Brexit, the country doesn’t know whether it’s coming or going.
These searing battles appear to be rooted in ideology. But appearances can be deceptive. Many believe that the Labour Party’s high-pitched campaign against the alleged refusal of its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, to exorcize anti-Semitism with bell, book and candle is really an attempt to oust him. Similarly, the snowballing movement over Brexit – with those who want Britain to exit the European Union joining hands with those who wish to stay in it – may be a tactic to get rid of the prime minister. In short, the knives are out on both sides of the political divide.
It all started with Theresa May’s Chequers plan. Chequers, incidentally, is a country house that an aristocratic English couple, Lord and Lady Lee, donated to the nation at the end of the First World War for successive prime ministers to use in perpetuity. A stained glass window describes Chequers as “this house of peace” devoted “as a place of rest and recreation for prime ministers.”
It was at Chequers that Mrs May gathered her entire cabinet and senior advisers for a 12-hour closed door session in early July to discuss a strategy for leaving the EU with the least damage. At the end, she issued a three-page document which made 12 salient points:
- Britain would have to leave the EU on 29 March 2019;
- Britain would take back control of its borders so that EU citizens can no longer come and go as they please;
- No further payments to the EU budget;
- Instead, the UK would develop its own business-friendly Customs model with the freedom to strike trade deals around the world, especially with countries like India, the US and China;
- Development of a UK-EU free trade area with a common rule book for industrial goods and agricultural products “which will be good for jobs”;
- A commitment to maintain high standards on consumer and employment rights, and the environment;
- The British parliament alone would make new rules and regulations;
- Britain would leave the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy;
- The European Courts would no longer have any jurisdiction in Britain, thereby restoring the supremacy of the British courts;
- There will be no hard border between (British) Northern Ireland and the republic of Ireland, which is an EU member;
- Continued close cooperation on security;
- Britain would also have an independent foreign and defence policy, albeit working closely with European allies.
The document was presented as a unanimous agreement but it was nothing of the kind. Clearly, Mrs May’s colleagues were guilty of dissimulation at the Chequers session because no sooner was it over than David Davis, the minister responsible for negotiating separation from the EU quit, saying the Chequers plan would be “worse than staying in the EU.” His junior, Steve Baker, followed. Then came the drama of the resignation by the flamboyant foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, whose revived weekly column in London’s Daily Telegraph newspaper misses no chance to attack his former boss, the prime minister, in predictably colourful language. There seems little doubt that Mr Johnson’s intention is not so much to alter the Chequers proposal strategy as to alter the author’s authority and address.
Those who disapproved of the Chequers document seem to reflect the public mood to some extent. Opinion polls show that some 52 per cent of respondents are critical of Mrs May’s 12 points, while just 18 per cent approve of them. Some 30 per cent of Britons admit they don’t know. Meanwhile, the former education minister, Justine Greening, claims that the Chequers document is even less popular than the notorious poll tax which Margaret Thatcher first imposed in 1989 as a flat tax on every British citizen. It led to widespread protests and is often cited as one of the factors that made it possible for her enemies in the top ranks of the Conservative Party to plot against Mrs Thatcher and depose her as prime minister.
As Mrs May’s adversaries seem to be closing in for the kill, everyone has some better plan to offer. An out-and-out opponent of Brexit argues in the London Evening Standard newspaper that the capital’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, should actively campaign against leaving the EU. “Brexit would make us an inward-looking country, resistant to diversity, poorer, erecting barriers against our neighbours and having worse relations with them as a result” writes Nick Hopkinson, vice-chair of an organisation called London4Europe. Mr Hopkinson believes that whatever the rest of the UK may or may nor want, London is anxious to remain in the EU. Some want a second referendum to give Britons a clearer view of the alternatives. They believe, probably rightly, that the previous decision was taken on emotive rather than well thought-out rational grounds.
Nicholas Boles, a Conservative MP who has been a minister in the past, has outlined what he calls a new proposal that will be able to unite both Remainers and Brexiteers. Mr Boles explains that his so-called Better Brexit plan means “not a softer, not harder, but (a) better” Brexit. Instead, it would entail an orderly withdrawal from the EU. He seems to be pushing for UK membership of the European Economic Area like Norway, ostensibly with a view to negotiating a Canada-style free trade deal.
His critics accuse Mr Boles of trying deviously to delay Brexit to a point where it just doesn’t happen. They are, therefore, trying to counter the presumed threat with a blueprint for a watertight advanced free trade agreement with the EU to cover all sectors while committing to zero tariffs and pragmatic cooperation in fields like security, data-sharing and aviation. Actually, Donald Tusk, the EU council president, made a similar offer some months ago. Many British MPs and policy experts would like it taken up now instead of Mrs May’s controversial and discredited Chequers proposal.
Either way, Britain must decide. There’s little point any longer in reiterating that not for a moment did David Cameron expect this outcome when he took the referendum decision. “This autumn Britain faces a terrible choice: between the humiliation of a deal dictated by Brussels; and the chaos of crashing out of the EU next March with no deal” Mr Boles reminds his countrymen. “But it is not too late to change course.” Not everyone is too sure of that.
Sunanda K Datta-Ray is the author of several books and a regular media columnist.