May deal ‘threatens national security’
The only guarantee is the crisis will continue beyond the March deadline
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe backed the Brexit deal of his British counterpart Theresa May after meeting at Downing Street to deepen Japanese intelligence sharing with Five Eyes countries, including Australia.
But at the same time, two of the country’s most senior security experts issued “a devastating warning’’ that her Brexit deal would dangerously undermine the Five Eyes intelligence arrangement.
Former MI6 head Richard Dearlove and ex-defence chief Charles Guthrie said in a letter to Conservative party local associations that Mrs May’s deal was so bad Britain’s intelligence relationship with Australia would be compromised and surrendered to European control.
The Five Eyes is Australia’s critical intelligence sharing operation with Britain, New Zealand and the US.
Sir Richard and Field Marshal Lord Guthrie warned of a significant change in Britain’s national security policy under Mrs May’s deal, which will bind Britain into new sets of EU-controlled security relationships.
“Buried in the agreement is the offer of a new deep and special relationship with the EU in defence security and intelligence which cuts across the three fundamentals of our national security policy: membership of NATO, our close bilateral defence and intelligence relationship with USA and the Five Eyes intelligence alliance,’’ they wrote.
They believe the defence and security relationship with the EU will be drawn into negotiations of a “backstop”, which would tie Britain to the EU until the Irish border question was resolved.
Mrs May is pulling out all stops to get support for her deal — including contacting the leaders of two of Britain’s biggest unions — to stave off the defeat of her Brexit withdrawal bill in parliament next Wednesday, but Mr Abe’s remarks that the “wish of the whole world’’ to avoid a no-deal Brexit may have backfired.
Mr Abe’s intervention was roundly dismissed, similar to the US president Barack Obama’s support of David Cameron for Remain vote at the 2016 referendum.
“It is the strong will of Japan to further develop this strong partnership with the UK, to invest more into your country and to enjoy further economic growth with the UK,” Mr Abe said alongside Mrs May. “That is why we truly hope that a no-deal Brexit will be avoided, and in fact that is the wish of the whole world.”
Mr Abe was in Britain to further Five Eyes’ co-operation for his “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy” to counter China’s presence in the South China Sea and disrupt North Korean smuggling. Japanese media reported Australia and other Five Eyes countries hold intelligence on military activities and Chinese hacking Japan wants to access.
Sir Richard and Lord Guthrie told Tory local chairs of the risk to national security under Mrs May’s deal. “Please ensure your MP does not vote for this bad agreement,’’ they wrote. “The first duty of the state above trade, is security, of its citizens. The withdrawal agreement abrogates this fundamental contract and would place control of aspects of your national security in foreign hands.”
They urged for a Brexit on World Trade Organisation rules, or no deal, and criticised the £39bn “ransom’’ to be paid to the EU.
Tory MP Marcus Fysh agreed with them, saying the biggest danger to national security was Mrs May’s deal: it’s “not leaving the EU it is subjugation’’.
Security Minister Ben Wallace said it was “absolute nonsense” the deal put national security at risk. “When you are out, you are out of the game,’’ Mr Wallace said of the former security chiefs.
Staring down a loss in the House of Commons by more than 200 votes, Mrs May made her first call to the head of the biggest union, Len McCluskey of Unite, a key supporter of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Downing Street was encouraged by the reception Mrs May received from Mr McCluskey as she promised to support a Labour motion strengthening worker’s rights after Brexit.
But she was rebuffed by Tim Roache of gas workers union GMB. Mr Roache said he was glad the Prime Minister picked up the phone after three years, but tweeted: “I was crystal clear about GMB’s position — her deal is a bad deal and flaky assurances on workers’ rights won’t cut it.”
British politics is facing a shocking crisis, as complex and dangerous as anything the great nation has seen since World War II. It will hit one decision point next Tuesday, when the House of Commons votes on Prime Minister Theresa May’s deal for the terms on which Britain leaves the EU — Brexit.
May will probably lose the vote. What happens then?
William Hague was a gifted foreign secretary in David Cameron’s first government. He has become an equally gifted newspaper columnist. He once remarked that the EU was a burning house with no exit.
Or, as the Eagles once put it somewhat less eloquently, you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.
Now, British politics has itself become the burning house from which there is no exit.
One of the grievous elements of Britain’s crisis is Brexit fatigue. The public has voted on this issue again and again, in a historic referendum in 2016 and numerous elections before and after that, but the EU pain will never stop.
Here is some more bad news for the British public. It won’t stop next Tuesday either.
What effect is this having in the real world? This week Jaguar Land Rover announced the loss of 4000 British jobs.
The Brexit mess is starting to exact its toll. But wait a minute. So far, Brexit has not resulted in any change to any tariff or regulatory condition. It turns out these job losses come about because of the bad bet the company made on diesel engines, and on a slowdown in key markets, especially China.
Nonetheless, industry has a right to complain about the agonising uncertainty of Brexit. In less than three months — March 29 — Britain is scheduled to leave the EU and so far no one has any idea whether this will actually happen and, if it does, what will be the terms on which Britain leaves.
This column could hardly be accused of having a surfeit of sympathy for the EU. But when you look at how opaque, confused, tardy, divided and frankly incoherent the British government has been even in sorting out its own negotiating position, you almost have a trace — no more than a trace — of sympathy for the EU negotiators.
Both the Conservatives and the Labour Party are deeply divided internally on Brexit. Labour can mostly hide its divisions, subsume them under general opposition to everything the Conservative government does.
May leads a minority government, relying on support from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party. As a result there is no House of Commons majority available for
British politics has itself become the burning house from which there is no exit
any way forward for the government. There is a clear parliamentary blocking majority against any path May chooses.
The polarisations — within the parties and between the parties — have become extremely bitter. So far no one is willing to compromise. Environment Secretary Michael Gove characterises it as the political factions behaving like 50-year-old swingers who turn down every offer they get, convinced that Scarlett Johansson is waiting for them just around the corner.
This situation is so complex that any confident prediction is heroic. But something has to happen by March 29. Every outcome has a wide range of possible versions, but there are basically five generic scenarios, one of which has to happen by March 29.
They are: 1. No-deal Brexit. 2. May’s deal. 3. A path is laid for a Brexit reverse. 4. A general election. 5. A new commitment to yet more endless delay.
Each one of these wildly different outcomes is possible. Let’s consider them one by one.
First, a no-deal Brexit. This describes what happens if Britain leaves the EU without a comprehensive, formal trade
agreement. Britain would trade with the EU under World Trade Organisation rules, just as the US and Australia do. But there would need to be a lot of technical work done because EU-wide regulations cover even routine things such as reciprocal landing rights for aeroplanes, international recognition for drivers’ licences and so on.
There is a whole theology of debate about what a no-deal Brexit would mean. I have interviewed many of the proBrexit leaders — Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Dan Hannan and economists such as Liam Halligan. They all argue, persuasively, that the dislocation that would be caused by a nodeal Brexit is wildly exaggerated.
May is talking up this potential dislocation to scare MPs into voting for her deal, lest they stumble into a no-deal Brexit. However, in a revealing comment, she told cabinet ministers: “We are still suffering from George.” This referred to George Osborne, who was chancellor of the exchequer when the Brexit referendum was held in 2016.
He predicted, and disgracefully got many government institutions to predict, that there would be a big, sudden, savage recession if Britain voted to leave the EU. But Britain did vote to leave and absolutely none of the things he and his fellow travellers predicated actually came to pass.
The Tory cabinet is greatly divided on this. The Business Secretary through the week said a no-deal Brexit would be an absolute disaster; the Defence Secretary said Britain would thrive whatever the outcome.
However, here is a devastating new element. Labour and the other opposition parties got about 20 Conservative MPs to join in passing in the House of Commons an amendment to a finance bill that will prevent the government from using certain tax powers to facilitate, work towards or in any way prepare for a no-deal Brexit. This means if no-deal Brexit does happen, Britain will be less prepared for it than it otherwise would be.
No one need doubt the essential good faith of the politicians who voted that way. But they illustrate the present debilitating syndrome of British politics. Not only is each faction refusing to countenance the outcomes it doesn’t want, it is actively doing everything it can to make such outcomes much worse if they do come about.
And if at some point a no-deal Brexit really looks likely, there is every chance many more proRemain Conservatives, including several cabinet ministers, would resign and vote in the House of Commons to stop it however they could.
The second scenario is that May’s deal passes after all. This looks unlikely right now but a strategy for it to happen is discernible in May’s actions. I think May has handled the whole Brexit saga astonishingly badly. But there is no denying her core political attributes — extreme stubbornness, extreme stamina, a refusal to change her mind and an indifference to humiliation and setback along the way.
People ask — the Commons has asked — what is May’s plan B if her deal is defeated in parliament? It may be that her plan B is just to keep presenting her deal, over and over, every couple of weeks as the clock ticks down to March 29, perhaps with some new tiny pretend concession from Brussels, and then to finally scare enough MPs into voting for it so it gets across the line just before Brexit Day.
May’s deal is exceptionally bad, almost comically so, because it ties Britain probably forever to EU rules and jurisdictions but removes even the influence it now has as an EU member. Naturally the Brexiteers hate it. But so do most Remainers, because they can see that it is vastly worse than current arrangements and would continue, and over time increase, the bitter, poisonous hatred of the EU among a significant minority of Brits. Jo Johnson, a strong Remainer in disagreement with his brother, Boris, resigned from cabinet in protest against the May deal.
Nonetheless, May and her deal could yet prevail.
Scenario No 3 is that Britain enters a path explicitly to reverse Brexit, to stay permanently in the EU after all. The EU would extend the negotiating period if there were going to be a new referendum with the possibility that Britain, by a substantial distance Europe’s most successful nation, would stay in the EU. Faced with the serious likelihood of a no-deal Brexit, the Commons could vote to legislate for this. That would require government agreement. May, despite her stubbornness, does on occasion embrace a complete volte-face. With her magnificent imperviousness to setback and humiliation, May could say she was implementing the will of the parliament to give the public a final say.
The dangers of this approach are, of course, endless. It would drive the British public mad. The Brexit saga would lurch on and whichever side lost would be filled with resentment. Nonetheless, with a new cohort of young people voting, and with the absolute shambles the government has made of Brexit during the past couple of years, people might vote this time to remain in the EU.
It is unlikely that Brexiteers in the Conservative Party would easily allow May to embrace a second referendum. The extreme divisions within the Conservative Party could thus easily lead to scenario No 4 — a general election. Jeremy Corbyn is the most radical and extreme leader the British Labour Party has ever had. Many economists argue that the money that is leaving Britain is driven less out of fear of Brexit than fear of a Corbyn government, with its commitment to a program of “radical socialism”.
Before May’s disastrous performance at the 2017 general election, she used to say “no deal is better than a bad deal” and she would add that if Britain left the EU without a deal it would undertake strong economic reforms that would make it much more competitive, and much more attractive to international business, than any European nation.
Corbyn offers Britain the reverse. He has traditionally opposed the EU — though he now leads a party where majority sentiment is pro-EU — because
The European Court of Justice has said Britain could unilaterally reverse its decision to leave the EU
he thought the EU was too capitalist, free market and neoliberal. The rest of the world sees the EU as the embodiment of stultifying regulation, Corbyn sees it as the last word in naked capitalism.
Therefore, perhaps if you really wish Britain ill, you would hope for the most chaotic nodeal Brexit possible combined with a Corbyn government setting about ending capitalism. That combination would be something like Britain eccentrically embarking on the Venezuelan road.
Which brings us to possible scenario No 5, which is probably, though only marginally, the likeliest outcome. The May government could beg the EU to delay the implementation of Brexit while it negotiates a more systematic surrender.
The European Court of Justice has offered a strong opinion that Britain could unilaterally reverse its decision to leave the EU.
However, to get an extension of time for further negotiation, Britain would need EU agreement. Therefore the EU could engage in brinkmanship and refuse to grant the extension, or do so only on condition that Britain is having a second referendum or is committed to some version of the May deal.
It is also at least possible that the EU could agree to delay without restrictive conditions attached, though that seems unlikely.
Delay certainly would suit May’s political temperament. Britain is in this mess substantially because of May’s terrible addiction to delay, to put off as near as forever as possible any difficult decision and, similarly, to put off any vote she might lose.
So poor fellow, Britain. We like to make jokes about the Brits, as intimate family members do with each other. But we seriously wish them humiliation and misfortune only on the cricket and rugby fields. When visiting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told May the whole world wants to avoid a no-deal Brexit, what he really meant was that every civilised person wants Britain to find a way through this mess and resume its normal role as a leading, democratic, mixedeconomy, Western nation.
Good luck with that.