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May's premiership under threat

May's premiership under threat

Brexit disorder portends potential election

by Joergen Oerstroem Moeller in Singapore

Wed 20 Sep 2017

Intense political manoeuvrings by senior UK Conservatives – together with warning signals in last week's passage through the House of Commons of the European Union Withdrawal Bill – underline Prime Minister Theresa May's tightrope walk over leaving the EU.

Three things are needed for a smooth Brexit. First, support must come from all political parties – a form of 'national compromise' – 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.

None of these conditions is in place. Furthermore, the country doesn't appear remotely near achieving them. A large part of the bickering in parliament and the media is because no one knows exactly what kind of agreement Britain is seeking. This explains why negotiations with the EU cannot begin in earnest. Brexit is, self-evidently, a crucial question for Britain's future. Ideally, partisanship should take a back seat. Instead the issue has become a forum for domestic party politics. And the Conservative party seems to be slipping into self-destruct mode.

May's actions – just like the ill-fated referendum ploy developed by David Cameron, her predecessor – 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, at least during a transition period, 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 heading towards a a trap she set for herself, in circumstances almost identical to those that felled Cameron. She needs the support of around 60 hard-core Brexiteers in parliament. This gives them 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 on 16 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 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 that will come out of this is disorder. At best, we can expect a messy negotiation result. At worst, no agreement will be reached. The option of extending negotiations beyond the March 2019 deadline seems to be slipping away as well.

May will need statecraft she has not yet shown 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. The Conservatives loathe the idea of a Labour victory. This may be insufficient to prevent 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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