Is Theresa May weak and wobbly in the Brexit negotiations?
By Daniel J. McLaughlin
During the snap general election campaign last year, Theresa May promised strong and stable leadership, but the voters were not quite convinced and returned her to parliament with a minority government. The prime minister, it would seem, became weak and wobbly. Since the disastrous result in June 2017, the beleaguered Tory leader has managed to cling on to power, and with viable option in the Conservative Party to replace her, she has been weak yet stable.
The stability has been put into question once again. At first, it seemed like Mrs May had secured a victory. Last Friday, she held a meeting with her entire cabinet in Chequers to reach an agreement on how to approach the final Brexit talks. After a long day of talks, the cabinet appear to agree upon a “collective position for the future of our negotiations”.
And just 48 hours later, it all started to collapse. David Davis was the first to go, resigning as Brexit secretary because he did not agree with the prime minister's plan. He felt that Britain was "giving away too much and too easily" to the EU in the negotiations. He was replaced by Dominic Raab, promoted from housing minister.
Not one to be left out, Boris Johnson also quit as foreign secretary, arguing that a soft Brexit would mean that the UK is heading “for the status of a colony”.
In his resignation letter, he wrote: “The trouble is that I have practised the words over the weekend and find that they stick in the throat. Since I cannot in all conscience champion these proposals, I have sadly concluded that I must go.”
As well as the major players departing from the cabinet, there have been a trickle of resignations from pro-Brexit Tories. Conservative vice-chairs Ben Bradley and Maria Caulfield quit their roles on Tuesday.
With her weakened position among her colleagues, does it leave Mrs May wobbly in the Brexit negotiations?
Irrespective of the resignations, there has been progress in the talks with the EU. Michel Barnier, the bloc's chief negotiator, declared that 80 per cent of the Brexit deal has been agreed. During a visit to New York, Mr Barnier hinted that a full agreement can be sealed soon, but warned about the stumbling block of the Irish border. The exit deal includes protections for UK citizens living in the bloc, and EU citizens in Britain, as well as a 21-month transition period and financial arrangements, the Evening Standard reports.
The EU's chief negotiator said: "Over the last few months, we have made progress in the negotiations, as you can see in this draft withdrawal agreement which we have published - more or less 80 per cent.
"We need to avoid a hard border and the UK has committed to this. As the same time we need to protect the EU's external border to preserve the integrity of our market."
While certain Tory MPs do not agree with Mrs May's plan, and some cabinet ministers willing to relinquish their position because of it, Angela Merkel has welcomed the new Brexit proposals. She said there had been "progress" in the talks between the UK and the EU, and welcomed the imminent publication of a white paper by the British government.
The German chancellor said: “We as the [EU]27 now will form an opinion and later on table a common response to those proposals. But it’s a good thing that we have proposals on the table.”
“We’re looking forward to interesting discussions inspired by the spirit of friendship and by the wish to continue a good relationship in the future."
Mrs May's plan is at least 18 months too late, and there are only a few months of real negotiating time before Britain leaves on March 29, 2019. The EU is also likely to reject the new plan. But despite all of this, Bloomberg argues, it is progress. "The plan May has outlined is at least a plan. That's something Britain has so far lacked. And it's a plan for a softer, hence less disruptive, Brexit than many Tories want. That's good, too," they write.
There are only 100 days left until the date when the Brexit deal is supposed to be done, giving enough time for the British and EU parliaments to ratify the deal. Time is against Theresa May, her colleagues are against Theresa May, but the prime minister may be less weak and wobbly in the Brexit negotiations than she is back home.