Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker shaking hands Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker, December 2017. Photo: Flickr/Number 10

Theresa May’s Brexit announcement on Friday was hailed as both a breakthrough and a betrayal. What has actually happened and what does it mean?

The prime minister and Jean-Claude Juncker were pictured together on Friday, smiling happily in the wake of the ‘Brexit breakthrough’ that allows some breathing space for May and the second stage of talks to begin, namely those concerning the future relationship between the UK and the EU.

‘Sufficient progress’ has been made: a divorce bill has been agreed, as has ‘regulatory alignment’ between all constituent parts of the UK and the EU. This Brexit neologism appeared in the language very recently in the context of the wrangling over the Irish border and has now reached such a level of saturation that it is the first phrase that appears as a suggestion on Google when you type in the first few letters. Here is the relevant announcement:

In the absence of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement.

As David Allen Green has argued in the Financial Times, this sets out a ‘default position’ – note the first phrase. Therefore, it can be put to one side in the event of an agreed solution. It also makes clear that the island of Ireland must continue with its current economic (and by extension, political) arrangements. As the 1998 Good Friday Agreement states, this means a commitment to the European Court of Human Rights, which is the guaranteeing body behind the European Convention on Human Rights, which the Good Friday Agreement brought into Northern Irish law. It would appear that this also means Northern Ireland will need to stay in the Single Market, in order for goods to continue to cross the border unhindered.

As there has to be regulatory alignment between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, the inference is clear: a ‘soft’ Brexit. This insistence from the Democratic Unionist Party on complete convergence is a piece of stunning hypocrisy, as evidenced by the lack of abortion rights for women and marriage for gay people in the north of Ireland. What has been the response to Friday’s announcement from the pro-Brexit right and from the Labour Party?

At first glance, it would appear that the Tory Brexiteers are going down with barely a whimper. Boris Johnson has said nothing, while Michael Gove has effectively told leavers not to worry, as divergence from EU law can happen in two years, as the current deal is transitional, plus the people can vote to go in a different direction at the next scheduled general election in 2022. Since then, however, an unnamed Tory leaver has said that Theresa May’s aides told Johnson and Gove that the ‘key concession used to seal Friday’s deal’ – full alignment – ‘doesn’t mean anything in EU law’. While this may have come to light for nothing other mischief making purposes, it is true, unless, of course, the final deal enshrines it in EU law.

All this gives the impression of a fudge. What is very clear is that the Tories fully understand what the dangers of reaching the year’s end still arguing about the Irish border would have meant: the DUP potentially walking away and a general election. At the moment, Tory unity has been achieved on the back of a desire to maintain the unity of the United Kingdom under Tory rule. This should be no surprise to anyone familiar with the resilience of the first party of capital.

Also, as the Tory Brexit dream is founded on the belief that the UK can reclaim its imperial position as a leader in global trade, it requires its base (the united constituent countries of the UK) to remain intact, and not threatened. They are fully aware that their global free trade dreams cannot be pursued from within the Customs’ Union, due to the requirement for the levying of a common external tariff on all goods, which effectively means no discrete trade deals. This is currently being parked, as presumably they think that a future deal that mirrors the Single Market and Customs’ Union in alignment terms will not prevent deals from being struck.

Political and economic unity is also required to keep the SNP quiet, who, in one of life’s ironies, have been making unionist arguments regarding the importance of Scotland being treated the same as Northern Ireland in terms of any future relationship with the EU. 

So what of the reaction from the Labour Party? Firstly, it is important to remember that the leadership does not really want to be discussing Brexit. The general election, where the party successfully shifted the debate on to the day to day issues and policies that blight so many, made the reasons for that perfectly clear. Moreover, as Lindsey German has correctly argued in today’s Counterfire weekly briefing, Brexit is not the only game in town for working people. Still, there have been a number of responses.

Obviously, the remain wing of the party that wishes to honour the referendum result hopes that what has happened signals a ‘soft’ Brexit. The Blairite ‘remain at all costs’ wing will hope that it creates a space for a second referendum and hopefully Britain not leaving, or re-entering at a later date, presumably with an opt-out from the Eurozone, entry into which is a requirement for any country joining the EU. Officially, the announcement was welcomed, if not with any great relish. Of course, any success for the government strengthens it, so voices on the left of the party, even those who voted remain last year, will be aware of the contradiction in which they find themselves.

Once again, getting the Tories out and playing to the level of remain support in the membership and among its voters are not positions that are moving in tandem. Kier Starmer effectively said that the government should keep doing what it’s doing, but do it better, which of course is a tacit acknowledgement that he would be taking the same road, but presumably would have done so more quickly and with greater skill.

Of course, what is also happening is a call for Labour to take up a ‘soft’ Brexit approach completely, which would entail the UK staying in both the Single Market and Customs’ Union permanently. This is wrong, both in terms of what Corbyn and the leadership want to achieve politically, and in electoral terms. The UK must leave both, in order to renationalise industries, to have a procurement policy based on social need, and a proper industrial strategy. Otherwise, a Corbyn government will find itself tied up in legal challenges based upon the EU’s competition laws. Counterfire set this out in our freesheet in September. The leadership appears to understand this and it is not from them that ambiguity has been arising, but from other voices within the party.

Moreover, the chances of a Corbyn government will recede each day if Labour moves closer to a position which effectively would be remain in all but name. There would be a real chance that the gains made in leave areas would be undone, with UKIP the beneficiary (as expected, Nigel Farage has come out very strongly against Friday’s announcement), as well as the Tories, assuming they can continue to repeat the mantra that ‘we are leaving the Single Market and the Customs’ Union’, even if the new deal makes it look like a similar arrangement is on the table.

Also, there is no evidence from this summer’s general election that a strong remain position is a vote winner, nor that the position the party took into the election was the wrong one – look at how easily even Labour leave candidates won in strongly remain areas such as Vauxhall, and with increased majorities. This year has seen a return to two party politics, with a clear division on offer for voters. The party’s radical manifesto led to the biggest Labour vote for twenty years. Believing the analysis of the strongly pro-remain media, in particular The Guardian, would be a grievous error. They have got almost everything wrong in the last two years. Why would they start being right now?