May’s future in balance as Brexit enters decisive week
British politics has been increasingly fixated on the Brexit countdown clock as the departure day — now scheduled in just 18 days’ time — draws nearer. As such, Theresa May is preparing for one of the most momentous weeks of her premiership — and of the country’s recent past — as lawmakers get a chance to decide whether Brexit goes ahead in its current form.
But events this week could trigger a delay in the Brexit timetable. There are many, even in the Prime Minister’s circle, who now expect Brexit to be delayed beyond March 29.
But first, the PM has to put her Brexit plan through yet another vote in the House of Commons. Few predict her to win — after the deal was lost by 230 votes in January, the largest-ever defeat for a British premier, May has made little progress in changing the parliamentary arithmetic.
The margin of defeat could be even worse this time, because her strategy of brinksmanship, which the Prime Minister has tried to hold for more than two years, has all but fallen apart.
At the weekend, May tried to persuade her rebellious lawmakers to back her deal when it returns to the Commons on Tuesday evening, entertaining them at her grand country house retreat of Chequers, but there were no signs that she has won them round.
And why would they be persuaded? Little has changed to the substance of the deal — secured with the EU back in November — since the January defeat.
Back then, lawmakers backed a motion for changes to be made to the backstop, which prevents a hard border in Ireland, and yet those changes have not materialized.
In a significant intervention at the weekend, Steve Baker, a leading Conservative Brexiteer, and Nigel Dodds of the DUP — the Northern Irish party on whose support May relies for a working majority in parliament — wrote a joint article for the Sunday Telegraph newspaper insisting that it was “inevitable” that the deal would be voted down on Tuesday because it was unchanged.
After that expected defeat, the Commons will vote on Wednesday over whether to keep a no deal Brexit on the table. This threat of no deal has been central to May’s all-or-nothing strategy to get MPs to back her Brexit plans. But lawmakers from all parties, backed by warnings from businesses, have mobilized to stop a no deal Brexit to save the UK from higher costs of trade on the morning after March 29.
This vote is likely to see no deal taken out of the Brexit equation — leading to a third vote on Thursday for Brexit to be delayed altogether. This would force the government to ask Brussels for a technical delay to Article 50, the mechanism for leaving the EU which was triggered on March 29 two years ago.
As May has failed to substantially change her Brexit strategy for months, she has found it has been changed for her by lawmakers from all parties. On Sunday, in an interview with the BBC, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt pointed out that the forthcoming week could see Brexit stopped altogether. There was, he said, now “wind in the sails” of people who want to stop Brexit, and that the two out of the three measures needed for that to happen — May’s deal killed off and Article 50 delayed — could be achieved this week.
The third, another referendum on Brexit, has lost momentum in recent weeks, but that campaign could be reenergized if Brexit is postponed this week — not least because the minister in charge of Brexit has held talks with lawmakers in favor of a second referendum in the past few days.
Hunt appealed for “realism on both sides,” insisting that “we can’t wish away the parliamentary arithmetic” and warning that “there is a possibility we end up losing Brexit if we get the votes wrong.” The Foreign Secretary, who is seen as a potential contender if May steps down as PM, warned Brexiteer lawmakers planning to vote against her deal on Tuesday that doing so would lead to a soft Brexit, with Britain tied into a customs union with the EU, or no Brexit at all.
It is a new strategy, approved by Downing Street, to try to focus minds. And yet in their article for the Sunday Telegraph, Baker and Dodds warned that the UK must leave on March 29, with or without a deal.
For the Prime Minister herself, what happens this week will decide her own future. She has already said she will stand down before the next election, in 2022, but there is already pressure from inside her own Conservative Party for her to quit within the next few weeks if she cannot deliver Brexit on time. There are even suggestions that she should declare she’s standing down this summer in return for more votes on Tuesday.
As so much with British politics, the unexpected has become the surer bet. May has an RAF plane on standby ready to take her to Brussels to win more concessions from the EU, hours before Tuesday’s main vote, which might just swing lawmakers behind her deal. Not everyone is going to get their own way, but after events in parliament this week, the future of the UK will become clearer.