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A Week Used to be a Long Time In Politics

Oliver Pridmore

Naked Politics Blogger 

The former Prime Minister Harold Wilson is often credited for creating the old adage that a week is a long time in politics. However, it seems that in a similar vein to his dress sense, his phraseology is ageing fast; as we saw this morning – a few hours is a long time in politics!

After a lengthy meeting of Theresa May’s Cabinet yesterday, the Prime Minister emerged from Number 10 and told the waiting cameras that her top team had reached ‘collective agreement’ on the draft withdrawal agreement between the UK and the EU.

But as the night drew to a close, morning soon broke and so did the first minister from the ranks – the junior Northern Ireland Minister Shailesh Vara resigned from his role early this morning.

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Around an hour after, the man in charge of the whole process, the Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab, announced that he was going too.

Then came the resignations of Esther McVey, the Work and Pensions Secretary, soon followed by Brexit Minister Suella Braverman and Education PPS Anne-Marie Trevelyan.

So, what are the key messages that emerge from all of the resignation letters?

Public Trust

One of the most prominent themes that emerge from the resignation letters is the belief that the draft agreement is a betrayal of the public’s trust.

Shailesh Vara began the message and it was echoed by the two most senior resignations today.

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Esther McVey’s letter was palpably scathing when it said:

“The deal you put before the Cabinet yesterday does not honour the result of the referendum. Indeed, it doesn’t meet the tests you set from the outset of your premiership.”

The message from Suella Braverman was equally critical when it said that the agreement ‘did not respect the will of the people – the people who put us here and whom we humbly serve’.

Giving Way to the EU

All the letters communicate the belief that the UK has been weak in its negotiations with the EU.

Shailesh Vara’s letter concludes by saying:

“We are a proud nation and it is a sad day when we are reduced to obeying rules made by other countries who have shown that they do not have our best interests at heart. We can and must do better than this. The people of the UK deserve better.”

The message from Anne-Marie Trevelyan read:

“The negotiations have been built on the UK trying to appease the EU and we have allowed ourselves to be led into a deal which is unacceptable to the 17.4 million voters who asked for us to step away from the EU project and become an independent nation once again”.

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Trapped in the EU

Moving away from the general principles of what the agreement means and towards the finer details, the letters pull no punches here either.

Shailesh Vara won the battle of the sound-bites by describing the agreement as a ‘half-way house with no time limit on when we will finally be a sovereign nation.’

Dominic Raab’s letter was more specific in its criticism of the backstop arrangements. The backstop is the policy whereby the UK will stay in a customs union if a trade deal with the EU hasn’t been reached by the end of the transition period (due to end in 2020 but it may be extended) to avoid a border with Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Last night’s agreement prompted particular anger due to the proposal that the UK could only choose to leave this arrangement with the consent of the EU.

Dominic Raab’s letter said:

The terms of the backstop amount to a hybrid of the EU Customs Union and Single Market obligations. No democratic nation has ever signed up to be bound by such an extensive regime, imposed externally without any democratic control over the laws to be applied, nor the ability to decide to exit the arrangement”.  

Threat to the UK

Another policy to prompt backlash surrounds the differing treatment of Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK in the backstop arrangement.

Whilst the whole of the UK would remain in the customs union, it is understood that Northern Ireland would have a deeper involvement within it – creating a difference in regulation across the Irish Sea which Esther McVey said ‘threatened the integrity of the United Kingdom’.

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Shailesh Vara echoed this by saying: “Northern Ireland in the meantime will be subject to a different relationship with the EU from the rest of the UK and whilst I agree there should be no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, the economic and constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom must be respected.”

What Next?

As the resignations begun, an announcement came from the EU that they would be holding a meeting of the leaders from all its 27 countries on the 25th November to decide on whether to sign the deal off.

Following that, the deal must try to get through the UK Parliament, with some predicting that this process will begin in early December.

That’s nearly a month away, and as we know, a few hours is a long time in politics

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