Brexit endgame: Theresa May’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May speaks at Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, London, Britain, December 12, 2018. Parliament TV handout via REUTERS FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - RC11380B1830

Why didn’t parliament vote on the Brexit deal?

On Tuesday, British members of Parliament (MPs) were scheduled to hold a “meaningful vote” on the Brexit deal: a 585-page withdrawal agreement negotiated over 16 months and a 26-page political declaration on the future relationship between the U.K. and EU. But on Monday, British Prime Minister Theresa May cancelled the vote because it “would be rejected by a significant margin.” She told Parliament that she would ask European leaders to make changes to the Northern Ireland backstop. Her office later said the vote would be held by January 21, which cuts close to the March 29 date when Brexit takes effect—particularly as the U.K. Parliament still needs to adopt implementing legislation and the European Parliament must ratify the deal.

Remind me why people object to the Northern Ireland backstop?

The U.K. is currently part of the EU’s customs union and single market. It will leave both after Brexit, which will raise the status of the Irish border to that of a customs border. In order to avoid a hard border, the EU insisted on a “backstop” in the agreement. The initial version said Northern Ireland would remain in the EU customs union and in “full regulatory alignment” (at least for goods) with the single market, if London was unable to devise alternative arrangements. This eliminates the need for checks at the Irish land border, pushing them to sea and air entry points to the island of Ireland. Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP)—whose 10 MPs prop up May’s government—balked at the creation of an economic frontier between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The final version of the backstop would keep the entire U.K.—not just Northern Ireland—aligned with the EU customs union, as well as require Northern Ireland to follow regulatory measures related to the single market (on goods and food). This agreement is not time-limited and the U.K. cannot unilaterally withdraw. While London hopes to negotiate a future economic agreement with the EU that eliminates the need for a backstop, critics fear the U.K. could remain permanently bound by these provisions.

Will Europe offer a better Brexit deal?

Theresa May spent Tuesday on a whirlwind tour of European capitals—The Hague, Berlin, and Brussels—but returned to London empty-handed. She cancelled her Wednesday trip to Dublin. European leaders were clear and unanimous that the withdrawal agreement cannot be renegotiated, although they expressed goodwill and a desire to help (e.g., clarifications and political assurances). Similarly, the European Parliament’s governing committee issued a statement saying the backstop cannot be renegotiated and parliament will not approve any deal without one.

It is doubtful any minor changes would ensure parliamentary support for the deal, with DUP leader Arlene Foster calling for the backstop to be dropped entirely.

EU leaders will meet on Thursday and Friday in Brussels at a long scheduled summit, with Brexit back on the agenda. European Council President Donald Tusk has said leaders must discuss the state of preparations for a no-deal scenario.

What is the future of Prime Minister Theresa May?

If May had lost the Brexit vote in Parliament, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn might have tabled a motion of no confidence in her government with the hope of forcing a general election. Yet he refrained in the wake of the delayed vote, calling on May to stand down given the “chaos” in her government but rejecting calls for a confidence motion.

On Wednesday morning, rebels in May’s Conservative party triggered a confidence vote in her leadership. (This occurred through an arcane process by which 48 MPs—15 percent of the parliamentary party—submitted letters to the chairman of the “1922 committee” of backbench members, who holds them until the requisite number has been reached.) Hard Brexiteers, who believe May has failed to deliver a deal that takes back control from Brussels, were frustrated by the delayed vote.

The secret ballot will occur on Wednesday evening. May needs the support of 159 Conservative MPs to survive (see BBC reporting for more details). There are several scenarios:

  • If May wins the vote, she cannot be challenged as Conservative leader for at least another year.
  • If she wins by a small margin, she may opt to stand down as party leader and trigger a leadership contest in which she could not stand.
  • If she loses the vote, there would be a Conservative leadership contest in which she could not stand. May would be expected to remain as caretaker prime minister until a new leader was chosen, which could take up to six weeks. The new leader, as head of the largest party in Parliament, would be expected to form a government and become prime minister; given current parliamentary math, this would require the continued support of the DUP.

Will there be a second referendum?

There are increasing calls for a second referendum. Although May has opposed another vote, she could change her mind amid current wrangling. If another poll was held, it is unclear what question would be asked. One option would be to re-run the first vote: Leave or Remain. Another option would accept the Brexit decision but ask voters about the terms: leave with May’s deal or with no deal (i.e., return to WTO trading rules). Other scenarios envision multiple questions on the ballot.

Is there any good news?

Brexit is stoppable. On Monday, the European Court of Justice affirmed last week’s advisory opinion and ruled the U.K. could unilaterally revoke Article 50 notification of its intention to leave the EU. May has consistently ruled out this approach. Such a decision would be easier politically if the initial Brexit decision was overturned in a second referendum.