Brexit Diaries 36: Another round of sound and fury

It's been a difficult time for Theresa May: Her Cabinet cannot agree on a customs arrangement with the EU, Brexit negotiator David Davis is threatening to resign, and Donald Trump ignored her at the G7 summit.

This week Parliament has finally started voting on fifteen amendments that the House of Lords had handed down in order to change the EU withdrawal bill. It was crunch time for Theresa May.

Read more: Theresa May avoids withdrawal bill

In order to heighten the tension some hours before the vote, the europhile undersecretary of state for youth justice, victims, female offenders and offender health, Philip Lee, resigned from his job in order to speak freely against the government's Brexit strategies. Another Tory rebel has outed himself. And he said at least one memorable sentence: "In the future it will be countries with allies that survive." The Brexiteers should have this cut in stone and put it in their front gardens.

In the end Theresa May survived another day by making significant concessions to her parliamentarians. "They bought the rebellion off" was the word in the House. Tory rebels abstained or decided to support her because she promised MPs a "voice in the Brexit process," as Lee called it: "It made resigning worthwhile." And, in the same vein, May's majority delivered on eight of the tabled amendments. The Tories are really the most reluctant rebels and "right or wrong, my government" is simply in their blood.

UK Brexit | Kabinettsitzung - Brexit-Minister David Davis

Davis retracted his resignation

David Davis resigns from resigning

Had he resigned last week, he would have missed his great hour in Parliament, where he got the chance to plead against the Lords' amendments. David Davis argued that giving a "meaningful vote" to Parliament, as the Lords had proposed, could undermine the government's negotiating position. And that it was a task of the government and not of Parliament to negotiate treaties. And, finally, that the result of the referendum must be respected under all circumstances. And, therefore, the parliamentarians should sit down and be nice and quiet.

But did he ever really mean to resign over the vexed question of a future customs arrangement with the EU and the Irish border? Or was he just being dramatic? Was Davis just flirting with resignation in order to blackmail the prime minister? Another shock went through Westminster, and for 24 hours it was feared that Davis would bring May down with him. But the danger passed quickly.

May had suggested keeping all of Britain in a sort of customs union in order to avoid a hard border in Ireland. Davis reacted furiously that this was not the point of Brexit. What he fears most is the "Hotel California Brexit," where you can check out but you can never leave. His concerns were, however, quickly eased when the prime minister introduced a final date into the equation. The special deal that would import the EU backstop solution for Ireland as a UK-wide rule was expected to end by December 2021, she assured. In legal terms that is as tough as marshmallows, but it was good enough for Davis.

Only the EU negotiator laughed them off the stage. "Backstop means backstop," Michel Barnier said, meaning that the proposed emergency solution for Ireland and Northern Ireland cannot be time-limited and it cannot be used for the whole UK. Another illusion broken, it's a hard life to be a Brexiteer.

Read more: Boris Johnson says Brexit meltdown is possible

Boris speaks his mind (again)

"We need to take the fight to the EU," Boris Johnson demanded at a private dinner that became public after it was recorded on somebody's mobile phone. That sounds suspiciously like Winston Churchill's "We shall fight on the beaches" when describing the threat of a German invasion. Johnson likes a spot of history, however inappropriate the context. And he does make quite clear what he thinks of the people on the other side of the negotiating table in Brussels.

Johnson would also prefer that Donald Trump lead the Brexit talks rather than his own prime minister. The foreign secretary is clearly fond of Twitter as a major political tool and of the "crash, bang, wallop" school of negotiation. What he seems to miss is simply the greatness in Brexit talks — the risk being "that we end up in a sort of anteroom of the EU, with an orbit around the EU, in a customs union." A terrifying vision indeed.

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As to the question of the Irish border, Johnson doesn't understand the whole ballyhoo. "The tail is wagging the dog," he said. In other words: The Irish border arrangements should not determine the outcome of talks and the whole thing is simply too insignificant to be in the way of British greatness after Brexit. It is truly nothing but a "folly." At a press conference in Brussels a while ago, a high-ranking EU official was asked whether the bloc did not trust the British government. The person involved was too polite to laugh out loud.

Brexit, according to Ivan Rogers

The former British ambassador to the EU stepped down from his job in January 2017 before Brexit negotiations began. He had serious misgivings about the government's underestimating the complexity of the issues. So, whenever somebody in London wants to hear how difficult things really are, they turn to Rogers. And he never disappoints. Rogers told a parliamentary committee that neither of the trade solutions that government ministers have gotten their knickers in a twist about — the so-called max fac and the customs partnership — are not feasible from the EU side.

"However facilitated the border (by technical controls on the British side), it's still a border," Rogers said. The EU would not agree to grant the UK frictionless trade in this way, and the same holds true for the customs partnership. Britain would need an "elaborate machinery for remitting back to importers the difference in tariff rates" between the EU and UK post-Brexit. "It's complex, to put it mildly," he said. So, if both attempts to get rid of future border controls don't work, "we're heading for a major crunch." And Rogers, who was in Brussels long enough to understand the EU's system of rules and regulations, adds for good measure that he was not being obstructive: "All of this is going to be bloody difficult to do."

The hand of Putin

The suspicion has been around for a while that Vladimir Putin played a role in the result of the Brexit referendum. And not only by using the dark arts of trolling and tweeting and general disinformation but also by helping with money. And that is where one of the self-confessed "bad boys of Brexit" comes into play. Arron Banks, a millionaire of dubious background, was the single biggest financier of the Leave.EU campaign. He gave about 12 million pounds in money and services to stoke the anti-EU fires and produced, for instance, some particularly insidious propaganda against migrants.

Last weekend it turned out that Banks had rather more meetings with the Russian ambassador in London than the one boozy lunch he always admitted. It was more like three lunches and further meetings with other Russian representatives, one of whom offered some goldmines in Russia for him to take over as a special business opportunity. The reason for that generous offer is certainly nothing but brotherly love and human kindness.

In any case there is no proof that the Russian president or his friends were actively fostering a breakup of the EU.  But the story about Banks' Russia connection raises suspicion even though he calls it "garbage." But it's not garbage we are talking about here but Brexit, from Russia with love.