Theresa May’s vote failure leaves her on the brink and the UK on a collision course with hard Brexit

  • Andrew Hammond says the British PM’s hasty postponement of her proposal before Parliament shows how hard it is to craft a Brexit deal that the public, and EU, can support
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 December, 2018, 5:04pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 December, 2018, 8:30pm

The European Council meets on Thursday for the last summit of the year amid growing Brexit turmoil following British Prime Minister Theresa May’s decision to postpone Tuesday’s vote in Parliament on the UK’s withdrawal treaty.

The fresh uncertainty is also knocking business confidence, with the Confederation of British Industry asserting on Monday that the UK “risks sliding towards a national crisis”. In financial markets, the pound on Monday slipped to its lowest levels since April 2017.

The pressure on May to secure new concessions in Brussels, especially around the so-called “Irish backstop” – which would prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland – is overwhelming.

Yet, European Council President Donald Tusk indicated on Monday that the EU-27 “will not renegotiate the deal, including backstop. As time is running out, we will also discuss our preparedness for a no-deal scenario”.

While Brussels badly wants a deal with the UK, it faces practical constraints on how much it can compromise, especially given Ireland’s backstop interests. To Germany and France, Brexit is vandalism of Europe and, while the fear of EU disintegration has receded, this issue remains a concern.

Moreover, Brexit is not the only big piece of business the EU-27 has on its plate. The UK’s exit is only one of several challenges confronting the Brussels-based club, including ongoing pressures facing the Schengen Area, Russia, the future of Nato, and ties with the United States under Donald Trump. These will all shape, potentially dramatically, the continent’s political and economic contours.

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Whether or not May can win significant concessions in Brussels, when she returns, she and her cabinet must decide – with Parliament expected to go into recess from December 21 to January 8 – what her strategy will be to get the withdrawal deal over the line. The odds may now favour postponing the vote to January.

Without a breakthrough in Brussels, May is if anything even more politically isolated. As she acknowledged on Monday, if the vote had gone ahead on Tuesday, she would have lost, with many estimating by a margin of between 100 and 200 votes.

So she is now besieged, her hold on power very fragile, and trying to get the agreement through Parliament could prove her undoing. She is assailed from both the political right, by those who favour a harder exit, and those to the left of her, who favour either a softer Brexit or remaining in the European Union.

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May’s stance, currently opposed by a significant number of MPs in her party, is only advocated by a few countervailing MPs from opposition parties. This leaves her a significant distance from a majority in the House of Commons.

In this context of tumult in Westminster, the Labour Party is considering a no-confidence vote. Moreover, May could also face a leadership challenge within the Conservative Party.

Britain must now pay the price for the tantrum it called ‘referendum’

Another factor that could affect the political climate in Westminster is the growing fervour for a national referendum on the terms of any Brexit deal, including May’s or a harder or softer version. The campaign for a referendum has public support from three of the four living former prime ministers: Labour’s Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, plus John Major of the Conservatives. They all argue this is potentially the only way to decide the issue, given the impasse in Parliament.

This all underlines the continuing disagreement within the populace and political elite over Brexit. This is not just a “leave” versus “remain” debate because even those who voted to exit did so for diverse, sometimes divergent, reasons, making fashioning a withdrawal agreement difficult.

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And continuing electoral divisions on these issues are underlined in polls which now show more people favouring EU membership than not, and the country split over whether maintaining access to the European single market (akin to a Norway-style deal), or being able to limit migration (as a Canada-style deal would allow), should be the key objective in negotiations.

Britain remains badly divided and heading towards what could still be a hard, disorderly Brexit that would see no deal This could result in an unprecedented breakdown in relations with European neighbours, trading partners and allies.

Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics