Theresa May seems to be battling on all fronts over Britain’s European Union exit. The British prime minister’s position looks parlous. Yet, beyond her multiple parliamentary and diplomatic battles, she is suspended in Downing Street by an uncanny equilibrium of opposing forces. The scale of her adversity keeps May in power.
None of her opponents, whether at home or in the rest of Europe, can achieve significant benefits in dislodging a pivotal figure in the Brexit process at a highly sensitive time. Nowhere is this converse logic on more vigorous display than in her own Conservative party.
May’s domestic rivals are stymied by fear that removing the prime minister could provide an opening for Jeremy Corbyn, the far-left leader of the opposition Labour party, who did unexpectedly well in the general election five months ago.
One Conservative ex-minister, a veteran of the party’s frequent Europe-related internal strife who terms the strains at Westminster the worst he has experienced, says May is ‘doomed’ to carry on for the foreseeable future. No Conservative members of parliament wants a general election and 80% don’t want a leadership election, he says.
May has been weakened by her ill-starred gamble in calling the June 2017 election, where she lost the previous Conservative majority. Philip Hammond, chancellor of the exchequer, who has taken a business- and finance-friendly Brexit line (relatively close to May’s), faces a major task over his annual Budget next week.
Hammond is embroiled in infighting with a right-wing Conservative group led by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, respectively foreign and environment secretaries.
Backed by significant parts of Britain’s anti-European larger-selling newspapers, they wish May to prepare actively for the possibility of leaving unilaterally on 29 March 2019 without agreement on an EU trade deal.
May is under pressure, too, from a predictable two-week deadline served last week by the European Commission, calling for UK concessions over a divorce settlement as the price for starting talks on a post-Brexit trade accord in January.
Beyond this skirmishing, May still looks the most likely contender to bring a relatively stable outcome to the interlinked challenges surrounding the Brexit negotiations and Britain’s stuttering economy. Profiting from her relationship with other European leaders (especially German Chancellor Angela Merkel), May as prime minister could represent the best means for the UK to leave the EU on relatively favourable terms in March 2019.
May is renowned for her stubbornness, capacity for resistance and ability to mask her thoughts even from Conservative allies. She is constantly under pressure – whether from Conservative competitors, Commission officials, or other European governments – to define her position more clearly.
The issues include Britain’s financial divorce settlement, the rights of EU citizens in the UK and the future of the internal Irish border. They extend to the vexed question of how long an EU transition period should last, when the UK will remain in the single market and customs union, subject to the European Court of Justice. In all these questions, May’s preference is to maintain a degree of ambiguity and keep her adversaries guessing about her ultimate position.
In the meantime, May appears at the mercy of opposing influences. She is quarrelling with internal Conservative rivals and external antagonists such as Michel Barnier, the Commission’s Brexit negotiator. On Monday she tried to appease pro-European Conservatives by offering the British parliament a full vote on a final divorce deal with the EU. She met European business leaders earlier to seek their help to push Brussels for a breakthrough in Brexit talks.
Much will depend on how Conservative MPs receive next week’s Budget, where Hammond has to steer a middle course between striking an optimistic tone on Britain’s longer-term future, applying tax and spending relief to alleviate the economic slowdown, and maintaining a semblance of fiscal rectitude.
Blunders and misjudgements by Johnson, the government’s principal Brexiteer, have bolstered Hammond’s and May’s position by diminishing his credibility as an alternative leader. Corbyn and other Labour figures have called for Johnson to resign, which probably bolsters his chances of staying in the shorter-term.
Even though this may bring some near-term cost to Britain’s diplomatic clout, Johnson’s incumbency, for the time being, serves May’s interests. His potency gradually waning, Johnson is a high-profile reminder of how fractiousness and disunity support May’s political survival.
David Marsh is Managing Director of OMFIF.