Britain in chaos: May stays as Tory leader and PM but none can defuse the Brexit time bomb

Last Tuesday, 11 December 2018, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel received the British Prime Minister Theresa May in Berlin. At the Federal Chancellery they discussed the next steps in the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union. Brexit will also be on the agenda of the European Council meeting today Thursday,13 December in Brussels. Photo: Bundesregierung/Schacht

Yesterday night the embattled British Prime Minister and President of the Conservative Party, Theresa May, won an intraparty no confidence vote. This was a Tory party internal procedure, triggered by members of her own parliamentary group. In the final result 200 Conservative MPs voted for May and 117 against her. In this way, she secures the Tory President’s chair for the next twelve months.

Despite that, with 117 Conservative MPs saying no to her leadership, life won’t be easy for her. Even worse, it must have become clear how many Tory MPs are going to vote against May’s Brexit proposal, when it comes in the Parliament plenary. The belligerent motion against May was introduced by more than 48 Tory MPs. Before the Tory vote, May said she will not lead the Conservative Party in the next legislative election.

Why did those unforgiving conservative Brexiteers undertake this action amidst a crisis? One reason was that Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the major opposition parliamentary group, the Labor Party, denied to initiate a no confidence vote in the Commons plenary to topple May. So, the hard Brexiteers triggered this intraparty procedure hoping to topple the PM and thus neutralize her soft Brexit proposal. Let’s see how the latest crisis began.

Calling off a vote in the Commons

Last Monday, the British PM Theresa May called off the vote in the UK Parliament, which was expected to finally decide about her kind of soft Brexit deal. The vote was tabled for Tuesday 11 December. The Brexit deal has been so far approved by the European Union negotiators and the European Commission, but clearly there were not enough votes to endorse it in the Commons.

Some weeks ago, when the deal was made public, continuous hammering followed from all sides of the Commons, opposing the Premier and her deal. May hasn’t yet clarified when the vote in the Commons on her Brexit proposal is to take place, but reassured the Parliament it won’t be later than 21 January.

Practically all the other British political parties plus the Brexiteer faction of her own governing Conservatives have denounced the deal, and declared they will vote it down. So, in view of a parliamentary fiasco, May called the vote off. What most MPs oppose is the so called ‘Irish Backstop’, a highly contested part of the proposal. Actually, things don’t change in this front, after May’s win in the Tory parliamentary group vote.

The Irish Backstop

According to this ‘Irish Backstop’, after the Brexit day of 29 March 2019 Northern Ireland will stay in the EU single market. If no other solution is found, NI will remain there until the transition period ends in December 2020. This is the only way to avoid a hard border enacted on the island, separating the Republic of Ireland and NI.

In the face of it, Eire will continue after Brexit being a member of the EU, while NI should leave the club, as part of the exiting UK. In this eventuality a hard border on the island is necessary. The Backstop is ‘invented’ exactly to avoid it.

A tormented island

So, if the ‘Irish Backstop’ is really triggered, goods coming into Northern Ireland would be checked if they meet EU standards. This, in practice, may require a customs border enacted in the middle of the Irish Sea (aboard the connecting liners), separating Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.

However, since London doesn’t want to thus ‘break’ the UK, the second option is that the entire UK remains in the EU customs union, until both the EU and Britain agree that it is no longer necessary. It seems that the time limit of that is still under negotiation between London and Brussels. Let’s return to the latest developments.

Nobody agrees

Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the major opposition Labour Party, had declared last week he will table a vote of no confidence in the Commons to topple the PM. However, he planned that for after May will have lost the Brexit vote. But May canceled the vote, as she had the right to do so.

After that, and, most importantly, after May won yesterday’s intraparty Tory vote, Corbyn seems to hesitate tabling plenary a no confidence vote against the PM in the Parliament. As things stand, May saves both her Premiership and her Presidency of the Tories. Yet, her 10 Downing Street occupancy is in the hands of Corbyn.

PM in distress

It is rather astonishing to watch the Premier of the fifth largest economy of the world and a nuclear power, being in such a difficult position. She was obliged to wait until the very last moment to call off a critical vote in Parliament. For weeks, May refused to accept that she couldn’t convince her colleagues in the Commons that her Brexit deal was the ‘best of all possible worlds’. Clumsily, she waited until the eve of the vote to call it off. This was the only way to extend her Premiership for a few more weeks. On 11 December the defeat in Parliament was more than certain.

Following May’s moves during the past few weeks, it is rather difficult to understand her overall political planning, if such a thing exists. Despite her knowing that such a Brexit deal had no chance whatsoever to win the Commons approval, still she insisted on promoting it. On top of that, when her team of negotiators was talking with their EU counterparts to strike this agreement, she didn’t have the political courage and the cunning to consult with the other leaders in the Parliament.

An unraveling government

Awkwardly enough, Dominic Raab, her Brexit Minister, resigned the next day the withdrawal agreement was published. Either he or the PM was stupid or they are both disloyal politicians. In the face of it, Raad was responsible for conducting the negotiations. So, he either didn’t understand what was going on or he betrayed his Prime Minister. As for May, there is only one option- she didn’t have control of her minister and the entire situation.

As expected, PM’s retraction sent all and every financial market in turmoil. The Sterling fell to its lowest level for many months to 1.25 with the dollar. Before the 2016 referendum day of 23 June, it was at 1.5 with the American money. The US ten year government bond plunged to its lowest since last August. Obviously, markets are now discounting the possible losses from a wild Brexit without a deal.

Careful EU

Reactions in mainland Europe were rather careful. An initial comment came from the Commission spokeswoman Mina Andreeva, who said the EU won’t renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement. Andreeva referred to what Jean-Claude Jucker, the President of the Commission, told the European Parliamentarians. He termed the Withdrawal Agreement as the best possible deal, which cannot be renegotiated.

Later on, however, the European Council President, Donald Tusk, appeared more flexible. He said the EU was ready to discuss how to facilitate the approval of the deal by the UK Parliament. He added though that the ‘Irish backstop’ term cannot be renegotiated. Today, Thursday, the 27+1 EU leaders are expected to meet in Brussels and discuss the matter in detail.

More negotiations?

Tusk’s statement, however, leaves some space for changes. French European Affairs Minister, Nathalie Loiseau, said from Paris that a costly no deal Brexit looks increasingly possible. She told the French lawmakers, “The risk of a no-deal exit would also be an exit that would be undoubtedly extremely costly for the United Kingdom but which would be damaging for the EU too. Some are drawing up other scenarios and the confusion in London remains particularly strong.”

Undoubtedly, mainland European leaders are very thoughtful about the possibility of a no deal divorce. So, today, the EU Summit of 27+1 – with Brexit as main and, probably, only item on the agenda – will possibly open the way for more talks between London and Brussels.

A perfect deadlock

May, then, could return tonight to London with some more arguments to effectively answer the objections of her colleagues in the House of the Commons. Having won the leadership vote last night, May’s political capital has somehow strengthened. So, if the EU 27 leaders today give her just a better deal she may fight to pass it through the dire straits of the Commons.

Unfortunately, Paris and Berlin don’t seem disposed for a substantial Brexit deal renegotiation, nor does London seem to even consider adopting May’s proposal. This is a highly dangerous deadlock with both sides seemingly unable to do anything about it.

 

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