May’s premiership under threat

Brexit disorder portends potential election

Last week’s UK parliamentary vote on the European Union Withdrawal Bill – and subsequent political manoeuvrings and statements by senior ministers – made clear why the absence of a national compromise anchored in broad political support will obstruct a smooth British exit from the EU.

Three things are needed to encourage a placid Brexit. First, support must come from all political parties for a well-defined goal that promises a robust majority when the result of negotiations is presented to parliament. Second, the result must appear equitable and palatable to most of the electorate. Third, the British negotiating team must generate some goodwill among EU member states in anticipation of the taxing task of implementing the Brexit agreement. Nothing like this has been attempted. A large part of the bickering in parliament can be ascribed to no one knowing what kind of agreement Britain is looking for, and explains why negotiations with the EU cannot begin in earnest.

This situation turns Brexit – a crucial question for Britain’s future to which partisanship should be subordinate – into a forum for domestic party politics. Prime Minister Theresa May’s actions are designed to keep the Conservatives in power, regardless of potential costs to the British economy. She is groping for something close to membership of the European customs union, but refuses to share specifics. This draws a shroud over negotiations, most notably on the issue of free movement of persons.

The opposition Labour party, noticing the schism among Conservatives, has become a champion for continued membership of the single market, which hard-core Brexiteers oppose. Labour’s move signals its intention to vote against any agreement presented by the government. While masquerading as a promoter of key issues, Labour’s actual intention is to bring down May and force an early election.

The prime minister is being pushed into a trap she set for herself, in circumstances almost identical to those that felled her predecessor, David Cameron. She needs the support of hard-core Brexiteers, who amount to around 60 members of parliament. They know this and May knows this, which grants their slim ranks undue influence over Britain’s negotiating position. If May does not give them what they want, Brexit could become their chance to oust the prime minister.

In a newspaper article from 15 September Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary and former mayor of London, wrote about his ideas for a ‘mightily successful’ Brexit. Johnson’s grandstanding stole attention away from May’s impending speech in Florence on 22 September, reignited the leadership debate, and undermined numerous official statements that there is an EU negotiating position supported by all ministers.

The only thing come that will come out of this is disorder within government and during negotiations with the EU. This will lead to, at best, a miry negotiation result. At worst, it is possible that no agreement will be reached. The option of extending negotiations beyond the March 2019 deadline seems to be slipping away as well.

It will require statecraft not yet seen from the embattled prime minister to survive a parliamentary debate holding her to account over what has happened so far. If she is forced out, a general election is likely to follow. The Conservatives loathe the idea of Labour coming to power; but this may not be enough to prevent hard-core Brexiteers from scuppering May’s premiership.

Joergen Oerstroem Moeller is Senior Research Fellow, ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, and a former State Secretary at the Danish foreign ministry.

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