Mar 30th 2019
The referendum in June 2016 was supposedly about taking back control. This made the news on March 27th that Theresa May had offered to resign to get her Brexit deal through more poignant. That her announcement took place as mps were, for the first time in living memory, taking back control of their agenda from the government to hold indicative votes on Brexit emphasised her lost authority.
The prime minister’s offer to resign if mps pass her deal gives it another chance, despite its having been rejected twice. But the odds still seem stacked against it. So her departure is better seen as the final stage in a process of losing control that began on June 8th 2017, when she squandered her parliamentary majority in a snap election. Her government has since depended on the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (dup). The election also made her more vulnerable to internal ambushes, notably by hardline Tory Brexiteers in the European Research Group (erg).
Along the way, Mrs May has shown a remarkable propensity to lose ministers. No fewer than 28 have resigned since she became prime minister 32 months ago, an attrition rate far worse than any post-war predecessor. Fully 18 have quit over Brexit, most of them in the nine months since the prime minister unveiled a detailed outline of her plan at Chequers, her official country retreat. Three stood down this week. Mrs May survived a no-confidence vote by her own mps in December only by promising not to contest the next election. And her loss of control led to two shattering defeats of her Brexit deal by mps, the first being the largest on record.
These domestic setbacks were matched by Mrs May’s lost grip of the process in Brussels. She began by drawing red lines and promising glorious Thatcherite battles with the eu. But she failed to grasp the mismatch in bargaining power. It has in fact been the eu that has set the agenda, determined the sequencing of negotiations and done most of the drafting. This reached a climax on March 21st when eu leaders met at a European Council summit in Brussels to consider Mrs May’s request for an extension of the March 29th deadline for Brexit. The leaders promptly dismissed her proposed new deadline of June 30th and spent hours without her debating alternatives. Towards midnight, the European Council president, Donald Tusk, curtly informed Mrs May that the new deadlines would be May 22nd if mps passed the Brexit deal this week, or April 12th if not.
What next? The political focus will doubtless now switch to the succession, with Boris Johnson or Michael Gove being champions for the Brexiteers, and Jeremy Hunt or Sajid Javid their most likely opponents. Yet the prior question is whether Mrs May’s deal passes. Although she was already winning a few opponents round, and more will now follow, the obstacles remain large. Even the Speaker, John Bercow, is exploiting his powers to make it harder for her to put the deal to another vote.
Nobody has learnt to stop worrying and love her deal, yet the prime minister is making the best case she can. She was clear this week that mps would block a no-deal Brexit. Deprived of their favoured no-deal option, more hardliners have swung behind her deal purely to stop a softer option or, worse, no Brexit at all. Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the erg, said that, faced with such a choice, he now prefers Mrs May’s deal. Some in the dupwere also reportedly softening. But late on March 27th the party insisted that it would not fall into line. Despite Mrs May’s dramatic resignation promise, the numbers do not yet seem there for her deal to pass.
Whether or not it gets through, the indicative votes by mps matter, because they will influence the more difficult second stage of the Brexit negotiations on future relations, which could now take place under a new prime minister. Predictably, none of those cast this week produced a clear majority. Yet it was telling that two secured more than the 242 votes for Mrs May’s deal on March 12th (see chart). These were an amendment sponsored by Kenneth Clarke, a Tory veteran, to add a permanent customs union to her deal; and a motion from Margaret Beckett, a former Labour foreign secretary, to put any deal approved by mps to a confirmatory referendum. An official Labour amendment got 237 votes, while a plan by Nick Boles, another Tory, in favour of “Common Market 2.0”, a Norwegian-style soft Brexit, took 188.
When mps tried a series of indicative votes on House of Lords reform in 2003, they ended up unable to agree to make any changes at all. Yet for Brexit the status quo is not an option. To avoid a no-deal Brexit at some point in future, which is their declared intent, mps must agree upon some alternative. They are likely to try to narrow down their options in another ballot on April 1st. Judging by this week’s votes, the most likely choice if Mrs May’s deal fails is a permanent customs union.
The other difference with Lords reform is that any Brexit deal needs euagreement, which cannot be taken for granted. The eu will insist on acceptance of the current withdrawal agreement as it stands. Mr Boles says his Common Market 2.0 plan could be adopted quickly by tweaking the non-binding political declaration. But the permanent customs union may be trickier, as the Labour Party wants a say in future trade deals which the eu will not allow.
What all options other than Mrs May’s have in common is a need for more time, implying yet another extension of the deadline. This could be quite problematic. Mujtaba Rahman of the Eurasia Group, a consultancy, says Brussels will insist that Britain participate in the European Parliament elections in late May. He adds that some countries now think a long extension could be worse even than a no-deal Brexit. Nicolai von Ondarza of the Berlin-based swp think-tank says some German officials are claiming to prefer an end with horrors to horrors without end.
With Westminster consumed by internal debates and leadership speculation, the eu is quietly preparing for another summit on April 9 or 10th. It is likely to find some way to give Britain more time, if only to stop a no-deal Brexit causing havoc before the European elections. Many euleaders will be pleased to see the back of Mrs May, whom they find ever more irritating. They should be careful what they wish for: her successor could be worse.
This article appeared in the Britain section of the print edition under the headline "The ultimate price"