The Explainer: Why Has the UK Government Such Difficulty Arriving At A Negotiating Position?

Why Has the UK Government Such Difficulty Arriving At A Negotiating Position? (or, How Membership of the European Union Has Haunted The British Conservative Party For The Last Fifty Years).

The inability of the UK Government to agree on a negotiating position for Brexit must, to any outsider, appear to be mystifying.  After all, wasn’t it the UK own decision to leave the European Union in 2016?  The mystification is somewhat justified when one also considers that many of the cohort of politicians seeking to take the UK out of the EU have been seeking this outcome for decades.  Why then do the same people not have a plan for how the UK will interact with the EU and other trading nations when it leaves the European Union?  That is one of the mysteries of Brexit.

There is, however, an answer to the question posed.  Put simply, it is because of the differences of opinion among the elected representatives of the UK’s Conservative Party that has caused such uncertainty.  There is no common ground that they can agree on when it comes to Brexit.

The issue of Europe has been the rock that the Premierships of Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher, John Major and David Cameron’s Premierships all perished upon.  Why is this the case?  Because the concept of a European Community or Union has divided the party for the last 50 years.

It is too simplistic to believe that the Conservative Party has always been anti-European Union while the British Labour Party has always been pro-Europe.  Both parties first great test of the European issue arrived almost immediately after the UK joined the European Economic Community (EEC) in the nineteen seventies.  From the moment of joining there was a call for a referendum on membership.  The first UK wide referendum on membership of the European Community took place on June 5th 1975 and saw 67.23% of voters choosing to remain within the EEC. Despite the 8 million vote margin of victory, the issue of membership did not go away.  Party lines were quite clearly delineated for that vote with the Conservative Party opting to support remaining in the EEC while the Labour Party, fearful of a denudation of workers right, campaigned to leave.  The Labour Party’s concerns were, at the time, largely driven by its association with the Trade Union Movement which in the 1970’s was an extremely powerful political force in 1970’s Britain.

Margaret Thatcher, who succeeded Edward Heath as leader of the Conservative Party and later became Prime Minister in 1979 had a mixed approach to the European issue.  While she did work with European colleagues to create a common approach to defence, her Euro-scepticism did eventually prove to be her undoing as cabinet colleagues such as Geoffrey Howe, Michael Heseltine and others grew weary of her anti-European stance.  They ‘moved’ against her and she stood down in 1990.

It is, perhaps, John Major’s Premiership that was most bloodied by the European issue.  His decision to sign the Maastricht Treaty in 1995 effectively lit the fuse on the Brexit referendum.

David Cameron sought to ‘lance the boil’ of Europe for at least a generation in an attempt to govern without the spectre of Europe hanging over his head.  During his first term in office from 2010 he saw his party leak votes to the vehemently anti-EU party UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party).  UKIP won most of the UK seats in the 2014 European Parliament elections and that ‘wake up call’ pressed David Cameron into acting.

The June 23rd 2016 referendum saw politicians of all parties coalesce around the leave and remain camps.  And then, on the following morning, Britain woke up to find that it had voted by 52% to 48% to leave the European Union after 43 years of membership.

From that moment, it seemed that the Conservative Party began to turn upon itself and differences, manifested in the campaign, began to magnify.  To that end, the UK Conservative Party today, in 2018, is essentially two political parties: The Conservatives for Leave and the Conservatives for Remain.  Between June 2016 and June 2017 it appeared that an element of moderate behaviour was evident on both sides.  It looked like Britain would leave the Union with a trade agreement from the EU.  That belief was unceremoniously whipped away by Prime Minister Theresa May’s decision to hold a snap election in 2017.  Her gamble saw her lose her majority and it now causes her to rely upon the external support of the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland.  More importantly, the tightness of parliamentary arithmetic, means that the most vociferously anti-EU voices on her backbenches hold her ‘to ransom’ as she seeks to define what Brexit will actually look like more than two years since the referendum result became known.

The UK Government’s tenuous grip on power means that Britain’s negotiating stance is now heavily informed by a cohort led by media savvy MP Jacob Rees Mogg.  This cohort, under their membership of the European Research Group (ERG), believes that the UK would be better off out of the EU without any deal.  Their ability to ‘inform’ the Prime Minister’s stance means that the UK Government is now not sure of the type of exit arrangement that it wants for itself.  Demands to repudiate the jurisdiction of the European Courts of Justice (the ECJ) and other institutions means that the UK cannot seek a deal akin to that enjoyed by Norway.  Much of the fervour propelling the no deal enthusiasts is fuelled by hopes of securing their own trade deals with countries such as the United States of America.

So now, the two parties within the Conservative Party are in an internal logjam unable to define a clear route out of the European Union that will minimise economic disruption to the United Kingdom.  This logjam has brought about many situations that would previously have been seen as shocking.  For instance, there is now talk of stockpiling medicines, food and other products in the event of no deal being agreed.

Whither the Labour Party?  It would be simplistic to believe that they should ride to the rescue and provide a modicum of stability.  Not so, they are as torn as the Conservative Party on the issue of Brexit and they too, it could be argued, are divided into two camps.

Britain is in a bind.  The two main parties are both split on Brexit.  Some commentators have called for an election to clear the air.  Other commentators believe that the probability of getting any form of a deal with the EU through the UK parliament as being slim.

In the end, the UK will leave the European Union.  Perhaps it won’t be in 2019 as is currently anticipated.  As you can see, the current party structures are ill-equipped to handle this once in a generation issue and that is why the UK’s ability to negotiate is so hamstrung.

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