Brexit Becomes More Baffling by the Day
February 21, 2019
Brexit has brought forth many new things: new terms (such as the Malthouse Compromise and alternative arrangements), new (and historic) losses (Theresa May has suffered her eleventh defeat in Parliament), new ministers (we are on the third Brexit secretary, and over 18 ministers have already resigned) and now, a new political group (The Independent Group) comprised of former Labour and Conservative members of Parliament (MPs). Yet, the one new thing that has not been, nor will be, achieved is what Prime Minister Theresa May so urgently seeks in Brussels this week: a new agreement with the European Union that eliminates time limits or allows unilateral withdrawal from the “insurance plan” that there can be no harder border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland (aka “the backstop”).
With 35 days left to go until the March 29 Brexit deadline, we are Brexit baffled as well as befuddled as we have no idea what path Brexit will ultimately travel. But, to help tackle the confusion, here is a quick look at several possible Brexit roads that are as of yet untraveled. Unfortunately, we are not entirely certain who or what is driving the car at the moment. Despite repeated—and in normal times premiership ending—defeats, Prime Minister May is still in nominal control over the Brexit departure process, but the historic defeat on January 15 of her negotiated agreement with the European Union ended the government’s complete control over the process. Parliament’s decision two weeks later instructing her to return to the European Union to reopen the withdrawal agreement was only an effort to buy the government time, not seize control over the process. As her grip over the process weakens, the prime minister is doubling-down on her original strategy: either Parliament approves her deal (with the European Union giving in to the United Kingdom’s demands on the backstop) or the United Kingdom will recklessly crash out of the European Union with no deal (some suggesting the odds of this option have increased to around 60 percent), causing great harm to both the European Union and the United Kingdom (and impacting the global economy). Her strategy is thus to proverbially run the clock to five minutes before the March 21 European Council meeting deadline to reach approval of her agreement. In the interim, she seeks to entice pro-Brexit Labour MPs to her side with offers of financial support to their constituencies.
But her strategy will only weaken her government further—as a sizable number (some suggest one-third) of her cabinet will likely resign on or before February 27 if the prime minister maintains her strategy of refusing to take a no-deal exit off the table. Her strategy also strengthens the approximate 80-member European Research Group (ERG), the hardcore Brexiteer cell that has tried to get rid of the prime minister in a failed leadership challenge and was instrumental in her historic January 15 defeat. The ERG delights in the no-deal option and cares little about the prime minister’s tenure or her agreement. Parliament had an opportunity to seize control of the process and develop a cross-party, majority path forward through a series of indicative votes, but thus far has remained on the sidelines to marinate in a constitutional crisis of its own making. In other words, no one has a full grip on the Brexit steering wheel.
Should the prime minister achieve a legally binding letter from the European Union that suggests a time limit on the backstop and if the attorney general provides Parliament with amended legal guidance, Prime Minister May may seek a new vote on her agreement, but it is unclear how many votes will shift. The ERG will likely not fully support, preferring the no-deal result. The Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which upholds Theresa May’s majority, may also say it is not enough as long as the withdrawal agreement remains unchanged. The Labour Party seeks a permanent customs union with the European Union, but its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, ultimately seeks a new election.
Regardless of the road taken, Prime Minister May simply needs more time to get something through Parliament (as does the European Parliament). It is likely that the United Kingdom will request a several week extension (perhaps to early May) to complete all the necessary legislative requirements. Another scenario could see a more dramatic extension to the end of 2019, but this would greatly complicate matters, as the United Kingdom would need to run candidates for the May European Parliament elections (for which they are unprepared to do) or agree not to stand in the election (which could be subject to legal challenge). However, there could be interest in this more dramatic option if a dramatic decision is taken—like a snap election.
Talk of a snap election (before 2022) continues to gain traction. It would require a two-thirds majority in Parliament to take this path but could be an accelerated option if a significant portion of May’s cabinet resigns. An election has certainly been Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred outcome all along. But it is also starting to look like a viable option on the right as Brexiteers are working fervently at the grassroots association level to deselect current members of Parliament who support the United Kingdom remaining in or tied closely with the European Union. Although Conservative Party members cannot challenge Theresa May’s leadership for another year as part of escaping her earlier leadership challenge, she promised she would not run for reelection at the end of the parliamentary term. But does that promise count for a snap election? Conservative leaders have been performing some dress rehearsals for prime minister—just in case.
But recall that the last time Theresa May and the Conservatives were riding high in the polls in 2017 and were so confident to hold a snap election, the Conservatives lost their majority, requiring an agreement with the DUP. The polls this time also suggest that the Conservatives could win over Labour (Conservatives are up by 5-7 percentage points), but an election would likely produce even more fragmented Labour and Conservative parties with the birth of a new centrist or independent party. It will likely not provide any greater clarity on a path forward on Brexit and would divide the country even more. Brexit becomes more baffling by the day.
Heather A. Conley is senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic and director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.
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