Theresa May and Robert Peel

With just over five months to go to the scheduled Brexit day of 29 March, there is still no certainty about whether Britain will actually leave the European Union, and if so on what terms.

Prime minister Theresa May will apparently tell parliament tonight that “95% of the Brexit withdrawal agreement and its protocols are settled” – a meaningless statistic, since if the other five per cent presents an insuperable obstacle, agreement on the rest is worthless.

Her Brexit minister, Dominic Raab, has promised Conservative MPs that “The end is in sight” and that they need to “play for the team.”  Meanwhile, something like 700,000 people marched in London at the weekend to demand a second referendum.

May’s fundamental problem is still as I put it last month: her position is “too ‘soft’ for her own backbench but too ‘hard’ for the Europeans. Whichever way she moves, there is trouble.”

To get a feel for the complexities of trying to satisfy these competing demands, have a read of this summary last week from Robert Peston, political editor at ITV. Here’s his conclusion:

8) But if she announces we are staying in the Customs Union she would be crossing her reddest of red lines …

9) She knows, because her Brexit negotiator Olly Robbins has told her, that her best chance – probably her only chance of securing a Brexit deal – is to sign up for the customs union.

10) In its absence, no-deal Brexit is massively in play.

11) But a customs-union Brexit deal would see her Brexiter MPs become incandescent with fury.

12) Labour of course would be on the spot, since its one practical Brexit policy is to stay in the Customs Union.

13) This therefore is May’s Robert Peel moment. She could agree a Customs Union Brexit and get it through Parliament with Labour support – while simultaneously cleaving her own party in two.

14) It is a Customs Union Brexit, or leave the EU without a deal.

15) Which will May choose? Ultimately this is her choice, and hers alone. It is her moment in history.


Australian readers might not get the reference to a “Robert Peel moment”, so some background is in order.

Robert Peel was Conservative prime minister in the 1840s, a modernising leader in what was still a very old-fashioned party. After several years in office, he became convinced of the need to get rid of the Corn Laws, a system of agricultural protection that was the target of a huge public campaign by liberals and commercial interests.

Although Peel was able to get the majority of his cabinet to back him, the mass of Tory backbenchers – overwhelmingly from the landowning class – were opposed. But Peel pressed on with what he knew was right, even though it would mean splitting his party.

The Whig opposition came out against the Corn Laws as well, and Whig votes enabled Peel to get the repeal legislation through the House of Commons in May 1846: his own party voted almost two to one against it. Once repeal was passed, the Whigs joined with the Conservative dissidents to vote Peel out of office, and Whig leader Lord John Russell became prime minister.

Peel never held office again, but his followers eventually merged with the Whigs to form the Liberal Party. Its greatest leader, William Gladstone, started out as a disciple of Peel.

It’s not far-fetched to think that Britain may now be heading towards a similar reconstruction of its party system. But nothing in May’s career so far suggests that she shares the nerve, the skills or the devotion to principle that Peel displayed.

And even if she did, the circumstances are against her. For one thing, the Conservative Party now has means of quickly changing its leadership that it lacked in 1846; instead of repeating Peel’s manoeuvre, May would effectively have to destroy the party system first and then hope for the best in policy terms.

More importantly, opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn is no Russell. It’s hard to imagine him reaching out a helping hand to a political opponent in the interests of the greater good. Much more likely he would take advantage of Conservative disarray to force an election first, and assuming he won it, try to pick up the pieces of Brexit afterwards.

So if May splits the Tory Party, it’s unlikely to be intentional and unlikely to lead to the success of her policy, whatever that might be. But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.


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