Sir Malcolm Rifkind on reasons behind Brexit, on Theresa May and her failure to deliver Brexit and her meeting Putin in Osaka

Photo: Sir Malcom Rifkind, the former UK Defence (1992-1995) and Foreign Secretary (1995-1997) and Chairman of Intelligence and Security Committee

VM: The British Prime Minister Teresa May resigned though she is to stay in office until new leader of the Conservative party is elected, and that will be announced on 22 July. There are two candidates for the post of Prime Minister left out of the number of candidates enough to create a football team. That is not the only one problem facing the Conservative party and Great Britain…

In the elections to the European Parliament, the Conservative party suffered the biggest defeat in nationwide elections since 1830, and received support of only 9% of the British voters! The Labour party was also humiliated and defeated. The elections were won by the Brexit party created few weeks before the elections…

Three years ago, when the British people voted at the referendum to leave the European Union, it looked as if the bright political and economic future was ahead of the U.K. 

Great Britain was returning as an independent international political and economic player. The Conservative party had solid majority in the Parliament. The government had strong negotiation positions in Brussels, and there were obvious signs of growing problems and contradictions in the EU. That was the beginning of Brexit… 

By now, the U.K. was expected to be out of the EU and to be one of the independent centres of world politics, business and finances. However, today Great Britain is still in the EU… or better to say that nobody knows where it is and where it is going. Two major parties, which had been the dominating structures of the British democracy and political system, now are divided, broken and losing popular support. There are growing political divides in the Conservative and Labour parties, between the Government and Parliament. The British people are divided and polarized.

What was the main reason of the failure of Teresa May to deliver what was decided by the British people at the referendum?

MR: «The main reason for the failure of Theresa May to deliver Brexit over the last two years has been that the Conservative Government, although by far the largest party in the House of Commons, has not had a majority of seats. It, therefore, has needed the support of some Opposition MPs to carry its legislation. In addition, there is a large minority of Conservative MPs who refuse to compromise on the issue of Brexit, want Britain to leave the EU and are not very interested in a compromise Deal with the EU to smooth the UK’s departure and to help retain our current trade with France, Germany and other EU countries. They have voted against the Government on the Deal that the Prime Minister negotiated with the EU.

Theresa May was successful in reducing the scale of her defeat on the Deal by asking Parliament to vote no less than three times over two months. In the first vote the Deal was defeated by over 200 votes. By the third vote she had reduced the majority against the Deal down to only 30 but she could not reduce out any further.

The Labour Party and other Opposition parties will not support the Government either because they want the UK to remain in the EU or, in the case of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party, because they want to use the Government’s failure to force the collapse of the Government, and a General Election which they hope would put them in power.

The results of the last European elections in the United Kingdom were based on only one issue, namely Brexit. The Brexit Party of Nigel Farage came top of the poll and won most British seats. Not just the Conservative governing party but also Labour led by Jeremy Corbyn both did very badly and came near the bottom of the poll. The big winners, apart from the Brexit Party were the pro-EU Liberal Democrats, who triumphed in London and came second in the United Kingdom as a whole.

The Brexit Party, while in the lead, won only 32% of the vote. Including pro-Brexit voters in other parties the overall result demonstrated, once again, that the British public remain equally divided between those who support Brexit and those who wish the UK to remain in the EU.

 It is too early to say how this will influence the contenders to succeed Theresa May as British Prime Minister. While it will encourage some to support Boris Johnson as a charismatic leader who might be more attractive than Farage other, more thoughtful commentators will see the resurgence of the pro-EU Liberal Democrats as a warning that the Conservatives could lose many votes to the Liberals if they do not continue to work for a compromise on Brexit. If deadlock remains I think that the possibility of a second referendum on Brexit has increased.»

VM: You are very kind to Teresa May stressing that she was “successful in reducing scale of her defeat”. At the same time, you correctly said that the main reason for her failure to deliver Brexit has been that the Conservative Government has not had a majority of seats and needed the support of the opposition MPs. However, when Teresa May had become the Prime Minister, the Conservative party had solid majority enough to pass legislation required. It was her decision to hold snap elections that deprived the Conservative party of majority in Parliament.

Many politicians and political observers blamed Teresa May personally in what has happened to Brexit. Some of them think that the biggest mistake was that she went straight to Brussels and started negotiations with the EU before she tried to negotiate and work out a draft deal with political parties and groups in the British Parliament. They think that Teresa May had to find compromise inside the UK first, and then to start negotiations with the EU.

Some of them even blame Teresa May in trying to protect interests of Brussels at risk of confrontation and polarization among the British people and political divides and by that pushing the Conservative party and British democracy into crisis.

Photo: Theresa May after she announced about her resignation as Prime Minister of the UK

In any case, it is obvious that crucial mistakes have been done, and the task to get the UK through Brexit without deepening political polarization and confrontation and inflicting huge losses to the economy with devastating effect to the country, will be a very hard job, may be the hardest in the modern history of Great Britain.

Who do you think is able to complete this difficult task among the contenders for the post of Prime Minister?

MR:  I was not “kind” to Theresa May. I was reminding the reader that, to the surprise of most people, she was able to narrow the gap of opposition to her Deal to 30 MPs and even Boris Johnson supported the Government! 

You are incorrect in saying that Theresa May, when she became Prime Minister, had a “solid majority in Parliament that was enough to pass the legislation required”. She had a majority of 12 which was far less than the number of Conservative MPs who would not support the Brexit legislation. That was why she decided to have a General Election as the Opinion Polls indicated that she would win with a very large majority. In the event, this turned out to be a very serious mistake.

I also do not agree that it would have been possible for her to negotiate a deal with Opposition Parties on Brexit before she began negotiations with the EU. Most of the Opposition Parties remained hostile to Brexit as did half of the Labour Party. The Labour Party, as we have seen, was more interested in weakening the Government than securing a straightforward compromise on Brexit. 

Whoever becomes the next Prime Minister will have the same dilemma. If the Government cannot reach an agreement and Parliament remains deeply divided the only solution will be to go back to the Electorate and invite them, in a new referendum, to decide between Leave the EU with No Deal, leave with the Deal that the EU has agreed or Remain in the EU. 

As the UK is a genuine democracy it is right that the electorate will have the last word especially when the politicians cannot reach agreement.

VM: The Brexit process has become the most talked about political process of the past three years not only in the UK, but throughout Europe, including Russia. At the same time, political scientists and mass media with enthusiasm discussed all events and intrigues around Brexit and analysing events that happened or should happen, but they practically avoided discussions and did not analyse, at least seriously, the causes of Brexit. It was clear that Brexit was a complete surprise for the political elites of both Great Britain and the European Union.

The political and business elites and analysts argued about how much damage Brexit could do to the British economy, how to solve the problem of the border in Ireland, how much the UK should pay to Brussels, or how much it could save money by stopping payments to Brussels and directing them to internal development, for example, for improvement of the healthcare system. However, even the British political scientists and mass media avoided discussions about causes underlying Brexit. In Europe, these problems were almost never touched. In Russia, there were no serious materials that analysed the causes of Brexit. It seemed that politicians, political analysts and journalists got confused and could not understand what was happening.

Some were so surprised that they could only say that the political struggle around Brexit turned into complete chaos. Others have made British politicians their targets for joking, or wrote that the British democracy showed its incapacity and was mired in a political crisis. Some looked at what was happening in London and in Brussels with horror, believing that this was only the beginning of a political crisis that could lead to consequences comparable to Gorbachev’s “perestroika”, which led to the collapse of the USSR.

For some Europeans, mainly from Eastern Europe and Russia, it was difficult to understand why the British democracy allowed the members of Parliament from different parties, who opposed Brexit, to block the decision taken by the British people on the nationwide referendum. From your opinion, what are the main reasons and causes for Brexit?

How did it happened that different political groups and MPs were ready to sacrifice the integrity and future of their parties and to put under tremendous risk and pressure the existing political system by fighting against Brexit?

MR: The outcome of the referendum was a surprise not only to the political elites in Britain and the EU. It was also a surprise to those campaigning for Brexit who did not expect to win.

However, it had always been an accident waiting to happen. Since we joined the EU the UK was a semi-detached member. We liked the internal market and political co-operation. But we never believed it was desirable or necessary to surrender more and more major areas of national sovereignty and transfer ultimate control to the European Union.

Thus we opted out of the European Single Currency (the Euro) and kept national control of our currency, interest rates and monetary policy. We refused to join Schengen which removed all frontier controls between member states. We opposed proposals to move towards a European Army. We saw these and other changes as major steps towards some kind of United States of Europe. Our public feared that even with these opt outs we would be forced, against our will, into more and more loss of national independence. As an island nation, independent and unoccupied by any foreign power for a thousand years we did not share the views of many in continental Europe that such levels of political integration where desirable or necessary. Most of Europe suffered from Communism, Fascism, Nazism, military juntas or foreign occupation for much of the 20th century. They were denied democracy and the rule of law for much of that time. They see the EU as helping to ensure that these bad days will not return. Our freedom has not been denied since our Civil War in the 1640s!

So euro scepticism is not as new in Britain as elsewhere in Europe. When David Cameron felt obliged to agree a referendum we all knew there was a serious risk that it could end up with a majority for Brexit.

British democracy has not shown “its incapacity” by the difficulty we are having in reaching a conclusion on Brexit. Although the turmoil in Government and Parliament has been embarrassing, it has all been peaceful. We have had no “yellow vests”, no riots, no states of emergency. The Government has had to acknowledge that our Parliament has the last word. Our Members of Parliament (both on the Government side and the Opposition) have refused to give automatic support to their Party leaders. Instead they have said that Brexit is of such major importance for the future of our country that MPs will use their own judgment as to what is best even if it damages the political parties of which they are members.

Parliament has not blocked the decision of the majority in the referendum. The referendum was only a decision as to whether we should remain in the EU. No decision was taken by those who voted in the referendum as to whether we should leave with a Deal or with No Deal with the EU nor on a range of other vital matters.

While the divisions in Britain have been embarrassing and damaging to our reputation they have also demonstrated how seriously we take democracy and the will of the people. Mr Putin’s annexation of Crimea took a few weeks with a phony referendum and no genuine consent or democratic safeguards. The United Kingdom is not that sort of country.

VM: There are some politicians and analysts, who believe that the world is moving to some kind of new geo-political «Yalta agreement», which is to establish new world order based on «spheres of influence» under control of few Gs, who are to negotiate and to shape world relations and politics. These analysts see the US, China, Russia as members of this new G-club. There might be other member-states, but they have not yet secured their membership. These analysts see Tump’s policy with its trade conflicts, tensions and sanctions, as well as the Chinese military build-up, its «soft swallowing» and penetration in all continents and all economic and technological areas, and the Russian attempts to modernize its military, scientific, space, IT and energy complexes and to return as key player in the strategically important for Russia world regions as some kind of qualifying round or preparation period of fighting for better position at that «New Yalta» table.

It looks that the recent G20 meeting in Osaka supported these ideas. Most of the participants looked like extras and witnesses to important discussions and negotiations, which were held with participation of Trump, Xi and Putin.

Photo: Trump and Putin in Osaka

At present, the EU is falling out of that process. There are different reasons for this, including ideological, economic and political, but one of the main reasons is its military weakness, which can’t be overcome in near future. These analysts think that Brexit is an attempt by the UK to return to the world as independent player and to secure its place among the new G-club, and that British powerful political and business groups, who want to have their right to vote in this new G-group, stand behind the Brexit.

What do you think about those notions?

MR: President Putin is the only world leader who would like to see some geopolitical “Yalta agreement” with the major powers having “spheres of influence”. Xi Jinping wants China to be a world leader, the equal of the US one day. But I have seen no evidence that he believes in a small group of superpowers working together to control the world.

Nor have I seen any evidence that the Chinese, Americans, Indians or others are seeking “spheres of influence” where they would be able to limit the independence or control the foreign policy of their nearest neighbours. The US had the Monroe Doctrine which was rather similar but they abandoned that many years ago. I do not see Trump trying to revive that.

Putin wants “spheres of influence” because he has never come to terms with the end of the Russian Empire and, in particular, the collapse of the Soviet Union. That did not come about as a result of the West. Indeed the first President Bush went to Kyiv and tried to persuade the Ukrainian Rada not to go for independence but stay in the USSR. They called his speech “the Chicken Kiev” speech.

Putin’s “Spheres of influence” are all about trying to destroy the independence of Ukraine and bully Georgia and the Baltic States. Events are moving even further against Putin’s strategy. The Chinese, through Belt and Road, have already replaced Russia as the dominant economic power in the former Soviet states in Central Asia.

Brexit has got nothing to do with the UK wanting to join a club of superpowers. We can never be a superpower again as a small island with 65 million people. We do wish to be more of an independent player and remain a medium sized power which is more realistic.

VM: In Osaka, Theresa May, unexpectedly for many observers, met Vladimir Putin. One could see that the meeting was not very pleasant for both of them. What was the real reason that forced Putin and May to meet? The Scripal’s case could not be that reason. What had they discussed so important that brought May and Putin at one table for negotiations?

MR: A good question. I do not know the answer! Meetings of this kind are what heads of government do at G20 meetings!

VM: In Russia, there are analysts, who think that there is danger that Brexit and the U.K. may follow the USSR and repeat in some way Gorbachev’s perestroika, which started as an attempt of widely supported economic reforms directed at demilitarisation of the Soviet State and conversion of its defence industries dominating the Soviet economy. Unexpectedly to most of the Soviet elite and people, «perestroika» brought deep divisions, followed by a number of political mistakes and as a result, brought the USSR to collapse.

Until now, the divisions within the British society, political and economic elites are growing. Resignation of Theresa May and the process of election of new PM gave a certain break to the UK and its people. The political tension went down, but this relaxation of tensions may be very short. The election of a new PM may put an end to that «break», and the divisions and tensions may start rapidly growing again.

Do you see such kind of danger to the UK and British society? Can Brexit push the UK into political chaos and bring changes into its centuries old political system?

MR: Any attempt to compare Brexit with Gorbachev’s perestroika is wrong and wishful thinking by certain analysts in Moscow! Gorbachev failed because the Soviet system was rotten, had failed to produce prosperity and had nothing to offer for the future. As soon as the structure of dictatorship was weakened the whole edifice collapsed. Brexit is causing significant strains but there is no challenge from any quarter to our identity as the world’s oldest parliamentary democracy.

VM: It is clear that much will depend on the new British Prime Minister, on his character, ability to negotiate, on his understanding of problems facing the UK and his vision of the future Great Britain.

There are two candidates to the post of the PM left in that race, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt. Who do you think will be the next British PM? What will happen with Brexit and to the U.K. in the next few months?

MR: It remains likely that Boris Johnson will be the next Prime Minister but Jeremy Hunt is campaigning well and one poll has already put him ahead of Johnson. Their views on Brexit are not very different. Both will try to negotiate a new deal with the EU but Hunt would not be as committed as Johnson to 31st October being the date by which we must leave the EU.

Photo: Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt

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