Theresa May and Her Brexit Cabinet
Give Them Enough Rope and They May Just Hang Themselves
Give ‘em enough rope and they’ll hang themselves. It is a phrase which has has been rattling around my head for the past week or so as the new UK Prime Minister Theresa May has appointed her cabinet and government, visited Scotland and traded barbs with Jeremy Corbyn at the dispatch box and even given a speech which wouldn’t be too out of place coming from a Labour leader.
A lot of people were surprised when Boris Johnson, the former London Mayor of London and leading ‘Brexiteer’, was appointed to the post of Foreign Secretary. There was more speculation as new government departments were created for David Davis (Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union) and Liam Fox (Secretary of State for International Trade). At the same time, a lot has been made of the Prime Minister’s position of consulting the regional assemblies and parliaments, leading Nicola Sturgeon to even opine that she could block Brexit.
"Brexit Means Brexit and We're Going to Make A Success of It"
So why has Theresa May, seemingly, given so much power over to people with political positions antithetical to her own? And what, if anything is her plan?
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon
Scotland and Nicola Sturgeon
Let’s start with one of the most delicate and very unsurprising aspects thrown up by Brexit, that of a renewed call for Scottish Independence. I say that with a caveat that though British politics is moving exceptionally quickly at this time, the SNP has not yet directly called for a second referendum on Scottish Independence.
If nicola Sturgeon is looking a little nervous when the camera is turned away she has good reason to be. Publically, Nicola Sturgeon is bestriding the European political stage looking for solutions to maintain Scotland’s position within the European Union (a reverse Greenland anyone?) much unchanged. At the same time she is walking a tight line stating that as we are at the beginning of the Brexit process nothing should be off the table, such as Indyref 2.
Here’s how Theresa May could well be setting Nicola Sturgeon up for an almighty fall with just a little leg up. The Prime Minister’s first trip outside London was to Edinburgh to consult with the first minister, emphasising her ‘one nation conservatism’ platform and commitment to the union. May had already stated her intention to involve all stakeholders in plotting out the UK exit strategy and negotiating positions and she actively demonstrated that position by stating she would listen to ideas and suggestions the SNP government come up with for maintaining links with the EU outside of the UK’s political channels and systems. In her first few days as Prime Minister, Theresa May is going out of her way (politically and geographically) to be reasonable understanding to the Scottish Ministers position. The canny part of this is it leaves Nicola Sturgeon to come up with an answer to the red lines she created in the first place.
And herein lies the genius behind both Theresa May’s plan for Scotland and her cabinet formation. Give them enough rope and they will hang themselves.
Giving Her Some Rope...
Sturgeon's red lines surround access to the single market, the rights EU citizenship confers and the free movement of people. All of these are at the top of her list as she negotiates Scotland’s position within a reformed UK-EU relationship.
However, with both the nature of Brexit and the UK’s future relationship with the EU still obfuscated with months and years of negotiations, playing the indyref card now would be far too soon. Put simply people have no idea what they would be voting for in the case of either a leave or remain vote.
What trade deals would the UK have in place for when it leaves the EU? What access to the single market would have been negotiated and what would Scotland’s future relationship with the EU be within the UK? To date, around 12 countries have signaled some form of intent to start trade negotiations as quickly as possible with Australia, New Zealand and South Korea among the keenest. It is likely that in the next few months more will follow. Free trade agreements and trade deals could provide a strong pull factor for Scottish businesses and Scotland’s Economy. Scotland’s trade with rUK at almost four times the volume than with Europe. Would Scotland want to miss out on these additional trading opportunities if the UK also negotiates access to the EU’s single market (via EEA/ EFTA or CETA type agreements)?
A leave vote would be an equal leap. What would an independent Scotland’s proposed EU membership look like? Would it have an à la carte membership like the UK has today with its various opt outs and rebate? Or would Scotland have to take up the Euro and join the Schengen zone. Would there need to be a hard border with England and what of cross border trade and family life?
Once these future relationships are negotiated into place, a referendum could be called offering Scotland a potential EU membership bereft of the current opt outs and with a requisition to join the Euro, Schengen and have a hard border with the rUK (not too good for trade) or join the UK in whatever negotiated settlement and trading relationships are put into place.
Sturgeon and the SNP will have to either call a second referendum, gambling that the prospect of joining an EU whose course toward further, deeper integration will hurtle ever faster without the effective break the UK has been or suffer a truly embarrassing climb down and accept that even for Scotland, Brexit means Brexit and the SNP are neutered.
The Three Brexiteers
I found it highly interesting that the three most prominent outward facing or international roles, namely Foreign Secretary, Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, and Secretary of State for International Trade have been handed to three of the most prominent Brexiteers. Straight away I could see the logic behind this as a potential masterstroke maneuver from May.
Meet Our New Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson
As pretenders to the throne, Boris Johnson has perhaps the greatest chance of taking it through from her. So as eyes in the media rolled at the thought of the blond-haired one who has not displayed too much diplomacy over the years in his columns representing the UK on the international stage, I thought there was a little more going on.
So why is his appointment a smart move? For a start it takes one of May’s strongest political rivals and effectively "Clinton’s" him. Hillary Clinton was a potential rival to Obama in his early years. Making her Secretary of State gave her a (seemingly) very important seat at the table whilst keeping her out of Washington for long periods of time, embroiled in international affairs. May has done the same with Johnson.
It should also be noted that those two great offices, the UK Foreign Office and the US Secretary of State are not what they once were. In both countries foreign policy and diplomatic stances have become the purview of 10 Downing Street and the White House since the Blair and Clinton years respectively. At the same time areas the Foreign office used to have responsibility for have been gutted. International aid is now run from the Department for International Development. The office has further been gutted in the creation of those new departments for International Trade and Exiting the European Union. Whilst it looks like Johnson will have a lot of responsibility, much has been taken from him in terms of heavy lifting. The heavy lifting of creating and shaping the UK’s new relationship with the EU and forming new trading relationships are farmed out, effectively making Johnson a brand ambassador and salesman for the UK, attending multiple foreign council meetings as he recites the government line (created at number 10) on international affairs. Think a lot of nice photo opportunities for a man who already has a lot of international relationships from his tenure as London Mayor, a job he also served well as a salesman.
A seemingly prominent role should placate the Brexit and Eurosceptic Tory voters and MP’s and allow May greater control over Johnson than if he were on the backbenches. It also gives Johnson just enough rope to hang himself. A few misplaced comments or a badly managed Brexit process and much of the flack will fall on the man who was one of it’s greatest cheerleaders and sat in charge of the foreign service, negotiating for Britain at European Council meetings.
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David Davis & Liam Fox
Secretaries for Exiting the EU and International Trade
Davis and Fox were not only prominent voices in the "Leave" campaign, they are also ardant Eurosceptics with history of criticizing the Union. They appeal to the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative party and a large part of the grassroots base, providing greater credibility to the phrase ‘Brexit means Brexit’. A phrase which is in effect a meaningless platitude. EEA membership satisfies this whilst coming with many of the conditions Brexit supporters wanted to escape from.
Davies and Fox will be responsible for enacting May’s pledge “Brexit means Brexit and we’re going to make a success of it”. As with foreign policy in general it is highly likely Brexit policy will emanate from Number 10. However it is the new resident at 9 Downing Street (keep your friends close…) who has to make it work.
After Davies and Fox have expended so much bluff and bluster in stating what the UK’s future relationships will look like, May has again given them rope to hang themselves. Should they fail to achieve their clearly stated redlines. Davis has set himself the seemingly impossible goals of retaining tariff-free single market access on pretty much unchanged terms to what we have today, whilst also having a redline of the free movement of people. Whilst there are ways this could be achievable it is going to be a Sisyphean task over the next few months and years as he negotiates with 27 seemingly discordant countries.
Fox may well have a relatively easier time of things with perhaps less direction from Number 10 and countries already looking to pencil in deals to be inked after Brexit is complete.
However, should one or both of these men fail to achieve all they have set out to do, exit the EU, retain market access and end the free movement of people as well as building external trading partnerships Brexit begins to look a less attractive prospect and they also hang themselves with their own failures. And the blame starts to fall on three men who championed it more than most.
This all smacks a little of "you broke it, you fix it". By placing Johnson, Davis and Fox in these roles May has insulated herself from any fall out in their failures. She can legitimately claim she gave the leading roles in Brexit to those who believe in it most.
If they can’t achieve what they promised the general public, she can swoop in, clean up their mess and look like the saviour of Brexit pulling out a settlement which is palatable to the majority of the public. If they do pull it all off, she can then claim victory in having appointed them to office.
Give ‘em enough rope...
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