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Analysis
PM must push Brexiteers against the wall

PM must push Brexiteers against the wall

May's only option is to stand firm on her deal

by Joergen Oerstroem Moeller in Singapore

Thu 31 Jan 2019

On Tuesday evening, the House of Commons refused for the second time to endorse Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit deal. Instead, two amendments were passed. The first rejected a no-deal outcome – or, rather, criticised that possibility, as it is only a non-binding amendment. The second asked the prime minister to seek 'alternative arrangements' to the controversial backstop that the government and the European Union hopes will prevent the return to a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

There is one big problem: the EU is highly unlikely to accommodate requests for alternatives or a legally-binding deadline for the backstop. As European Council President Donald Tusk has said, 'The backstop is part of the withdrawal agreement, and the withdrawal agreement is not open for renegotiation.' But if May cannot secure any concessions, her parliamentary majority will crumble. Both the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party, which gave May a working majority after the June 2017 general election, and hard-core Conservative Brexiteers fear the backstop will be used to keep Britain inside the European customs union indefinitely.

May now has to go back to Brussels to win meaningful concessions on her original deal. In the probable case that none will be agreed, May is back to square one. This would leave the prime minister with a single option when she goes to parliament on 13 February to report on the negotiations.

She must stand firm on her deal – amended or not – as the only workable outcome and push the DUP and Conservative Brexiteers against the wall. This would shift responsibility onto them for a possibly catastrophic outcome. This strategy offers the only chance for the UK to leave the EU in relatively good shape.

Anything else hands over the initiative to parliament, with various groups forming unholy alliances in a chaotic game. Majorities can be formed to block proposals, but there is no consensus for an alternative solution; the majority against a no-deal outcome cannot be turned into a majority for something else.

The default outcome is a no-deal exit on 29 March. If that is to be avoided, May must force the hard-core Brexiteers to join the majority who do not want to leave without a deal. However, Conservative grandees and the prime minister are not willing to run the risk of splitting the party, which allows the Brexiteers to dictate proceedings. Neither the EU nor opposition Labour party (itself divided) can rescue May from the rebels. If she cannot get her own MPs to vote for her deal, any other outcome is blocked.

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

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