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Sir Robert Peel and the Corn Laws – the ghost that haunts Theresa May

November 11th, 2017

There is a way to avoid a Crash Brexit – but it’ll destroy May, her party and trust

All parties of any age have ghosts that haunt them: spectres from disasters of the past so great that they dare not be forgotten yet dare not be truly remembered either. Indeed, they may not really be remembered in detail at all; their legacy today lying not in memory or even mythology but in the culture and behaviour that evolved to ward off the evil spirits; a culture buried so deep that it never really need be explained other than a short ‘that’s not how we do things here’ to the new and the naive.

    For the Conservatives, the darkest of several ghosts that stalk the party is that of Robert Peel. It was Peel who inadvertently created the Conservative Party by splitting, and splitting from, the Tories that preceded it over the issue of the Corn Laws.

That he did so on a point which was one both of principle (he was genuinely in favour of free trade) and of practical humanitarian assistance is a complicating factor but the reaction still probably finds an echo in the traditional Conservative scepticism of ideologues. What the split also did was hand the country to the Liberal coalition for most of the next thirty years.

Why does this matter? Because Theresa May could well find herself in something of a similar position to Peel. Fortunately, the stakes won’t be quite as high. No matter how hard Brexit is, millions are not going to die. Even so, a failure to reach an Article 50 agreement by 29 March 2019 – a date likely, and foolishly, to be set in stone by legislation as the deadline for withdrawal – would almost certainly prompt a severe recession as the dislocation to the economy hit home.

Unfortunately, there’s an element of crying wolf here. Remain over-egged their predictions of what voting out would do, and some have similarly over-egged their predicted consequences from an orderly withdrawal. A disorderly withdrawal, however, is something very different. Trade would be seriously interrupted, yes, but the effects of a shift overnight to a whole new regulatory regime without that regime being properly prepared for and implemented would go far wider, touching directly or indirectly almost every aspect of daily economic life, parts of which could seize up.

This is, obviously, something the government wants to avoid. However, it’s not obvious that it can. Its self-imposed conditions, on the ECJ’s role and on freedom of movement, run directly counter to the EU’s red lines on the integrity of the Single Market, the need for a frictionless Irish border and how any deal on expats’ rights is enforced. There is of course also the question of the divorce bill – though there at least the dispute is down to details rather than principle, even if the nature of those details differs by tens of billions of pounds.

Might the EU move? It’s possible. On expats’ rights, there should be scope for compromise and the EU really ought to be able to roll back on its insistence that the ECJ guards how the deal is implemented in Britain. Mutual recognition of courts within their jurisdictions ought to be possible. Ireland is another question though. Not only is the EU red line meaningful there, there will be pressure from the DUP, as well as within the Conservatives, to ensure the integrity of the UK isn’t undermined by placing borders between Ulster and Britain.

That conflict could be resolved if Britain remains in the Single Market but that then has to run counter to the insistence on Britain regaining sovereignty on immigration and legislation – promises that May has made.

The PM made them for good reasons. At one level, it’s the spirit of what the voters backed. For Brexit to mean Brexit, and to be seen to mean Brexit, that means not just leaving the legal construct of the EU but leaving behind its restrictions and duties (and, inevitability, its benefits too). Staying in the Single Market would leave precious little behind. But for those same reasons, that same policy is currently holding together the Conservative party both in its support and in parliament.

Which is where we come back to Peel’s ghost. As with the repeal of the Corn Laws, there is a majority in parliament for a soft Brexit; it’s just that it involves gaining the backing of the opposition over the majority of the PM’s own party, with a very strong chance of the same result, in both the short and the longer term (Vince Cable can rest easy: the ‘same result’ is about the opposition, not the modern-day successors to the Whigs). But the cost to the PM and her party would be grievous and the benefits may be overrated.

Will May feel obliged, if the negotiations do go down to the wire, to sign whatever’s on offer so as to prevent a Crash Brexit? If she does, she would no doubt lose her leadership and, knowing that, could only propose it if she were willing to go all the way.

Which I don’t think she would. We all know that she’s in a weak position, pulled by the EU in one direction – the government has done pretty much all the conceding so far – and by her Eurosceptics on that other. Ultimately, the pull of her MPs will be the stronger but either way, she has to follow, not lead.

What that means is that a Crash Brexit is a very very real possibility. The red lines on both sides always meant that was the case and the likely writing into law of the UK’s deadline for leaving only increases that chance. But while Brexit may break many things, the party system won’t be one of them. Not beforehand, anyway.

David Herdson