With her back to the wall, UK Prime Minister Theresa May seems to have forged a strategy to achieve her goals. She repeats at every opportunity that her deal, agreed at the European summit on 25 November 2018 and debated in the House of Commons at the beginning this week, is the only one available. May will not budge on this point, so it is possible to sketch Brexit’s probable trajectory between now and 29 March 2019 and how the final showdown will look.
Having survived a leadership challenge (albeit with a disquietingly high proportion, at slightly more than one-third, of her Conservative members of parliament voting against her), May will again open talks with European leaders over the coming days. It is improbable that anything of substance will be added to the deal agreed on 25 November. The European Union will offer declarations and commitments on the contentious Northern Ireland backstop, saying that the measure will only ever be used in exceptional circumstances and that everything will be done to avoid its activation.
This will not change the reality, but from May’s perspective will serve two purposes. First, it will show she is committed to negotiating the best deal. She cannot be blamed for not having tried as hard as possible. Second, it will prove she is right when saying that this is the only deal. Polls suggest no one believes any challenger to May could get a better deal.
The next step will be to postpone the ‘meaningful vote’ in parliament for as long as possible. The vocabulary used by May’s team is ‘before January 21’, which is considered the deadline according to parliamentary procedures in view of the originally scheduled date for the vote on 11 December.
This tactic appears to be cornering hard-core Brexiteers by forcing them into a situation where they will have to choose between voting for May’s deal or assuming responsibility for throwing Britain into chaos as the clock ticks away, leaving no time to negotiate an alternative accord.
May has on several occasions invoked the theme of voting in the national interest and reiterated how damaging a no-deal Brexit would be. Reams of economic analysis reveal the high cost embedded in such a scenario. May will say hard-core Brexiteers are chasing a mirage and peddling a personal vendetta against her.
May is unlikely to persuade enough of the MPs who on Wednesday voted against her leadership to accept a ‘new version’ of her deal decorated with a couple of declarations from Europe.
Hard-core Brexiteers will not buy May’s argument that her deal is the only one. Their riposte will be that her ineptitude, lack of will to stand up to the EU and ‘betrayal’ of the June 2016 referendum has brought about the stalemate. If only she had been committed to a genuine Brexit from the start of her time in power, a much better deal reflecting the will of the British people would have been on the table, they will contend.
If they and the other parties in parliament stand firm against May, her deal will not make it through the House of Commons. Party rules dictate that there cannot be another Conservative leadership contest for 12 months, so May will be left as a lame duck prime minister, unless the opposition parties table a vote of no confidence in the government. The Labour party has held out on this front, saying it will wait until such a time as it is confident it could win a general election. In practice, this will not happen until May’s deal falls in parliament, at which point the 29 March exit deadline may loom much too large.
A power vacuum seems likely to arise in London. Unless May miraculously reimposes her will over the Conservative party and convinces parliament of the value of her deal, Britain will drift towards a no-deal Brexit.
Joergen Oerstroem Moeller is Senior Research Fellow, ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, and a former State Secretary at the Danish foreign ministry.