A New Salesman For May’s Brexit Deal

Theresa May struggles to hold her government together as next year'sBrexit deadline looms.

Prime Minister Theresa May’s appointment of a 46-year-old political unknown to the contentious Cabinet post of Brexit secretary last month provoked many to ask, “Stephen who?” Stephen Barclay, a lawyer and previously a health minister, worked in the City before entering parliament in 2010. A moderate Brexiteer, his appointment follows the dramatic resignation of Dominic Raab, who had condemned the very Brexit deal with the EU that he himself had negotiated.

May has made it clear that the Brexit post is now a more junior role, with most of the big decisions made by her and Olly Robbins, a senior civil servant. However, Barclay’s relatively low profile could actually help get May’s deal through Parliament, observers say. Most see this as an uphill task, given the mixed feelings of many pro- and anti-Brexit MPs. While the deal meets May’s key aim of controlling migration, opponents argue that it turns the UK into a supplicant and prevents it pursuing independent trade deals—one of the Brexiters great aims.

Barclay, unlike his two predecessors, is untainted by association with the referendum or the bitter wrangling that has followed, observers say. Still, he will face a tough challenge selling the deal to his colleagues, let alone to the Labour Party, whose successive contradictory stances on Brexit have left the UK without a strong alternative voice. Many Labour voters support Leave, while its membership and the parliamentary party largely favor Remain. The Conservative Party’s splits over Brexit have become even more apparent, despite the embarrassing failure of European Research Group, the party’s pro-Brexit think tank, to launch a vote of no confidence in May.

These splits, and the fact that May’s deal, however problematic, is the only one on the table, lead many to believe it will be adopted in Parliament—aided by May’s new “safe pair of hands,” Stephen Barclay. Alternatives, such as a new election or a second referendum, would take more time than the UK has left before its March 29 departure date. And a no-deal “crash-out” would be even worse.