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Two Ways May Could Just End the Brexit Standoff

Two Ways May Could Just End the Brexit Standoff

Saturday, 12 January, 2019 - 10:00
Britain’s parliament hasn’t yet voted on Theresa May’s Brexit deal or on whether it still has confidence in her government. The first will happen on Jan. 15 and if, as expected, she loses, the Labour Party is threatening to hold a vote on the latter soon after.

But two votes that members of parliament have held so far this week amount to both a rejection of her deal and an informal vote of no confidence in the government. The result is what May’s former chief of staff Nick Timothy calls a “Mexican stand-off.” There are two ways May can end it; neither will please hardline Brexiters.

Tuesday’s vote, in which 20 of May’s own Conservative MPs sided with the Labour Party, was a warning lawmakers will do whatever it takes to stop a no-deal exit. But that’s harder than it seems. While the vote ties the Treasury’s hands in the event of a departure without agreement, it doesn’t actually prevent it.

The second defeat for the government, a day later, was more consequential. Speaker John Bercow controversially dispensed with convention to allow an amendment that forces the government to return to parliament within three days of its deal being voted down to explain its Plan B.

That means MPs should get a chance soon to vote on other options than May’s deal, including a second referendum. It would still require the government to embrace a course of action, but at least it would clarify if there is a parliamentary majority for it. Bercow’s decision suggests he will use his powers liberally until he’s ousted at least. For now, though, the hand of parliament has been strengthened at a key moment.

The government hasn’t given up on its deal, though. But its attempt to woo the Democratic Unionist Party, the Northern Irish party May relies on for her parliamentary majority, was dismissed by the DUP as “fairly meaningless.” A bid to woo Brexiters with promises that MPs would decide whether to trigger the controversial backstop doesn’t seem to have changed minds.

So who fires the first shot in the Mexican stand-off, and what’s May’s Plan B? May has refused repeatedly to rule out a no-deal exit. Unless you believe she’s actually willing to allow that to happen — I don’t — her refusal is tactical, a punt on the hope that the threat will force MPs to vote for her deal instead. For it to work, the threat needs to be credible, and MPs need to believe they have no other choice. But they do.

Jeremy Corbyn has previously been unwilling to trigger a no-confidence vote he will certainly lose, especially as Labour’s policy, if elections aren’t possible, is to call a second referendum. That’s something that Corbyn doesn’t really want. But Labour’s call for new elections has started to look like more than empty posturing. What if a sufficient number of moderate Conservative MPs see a confidence vote as the only way to avert a disastrous no-deal exit?

Careerism and party loyalties can usually be said to trump almost anything else in British politics, but perhaps not now, not at this historical juncture and not in the midst of a constitutional crisis that, as today’s announcement of 5,000 job cuts at Jaguar Land Rover reminds us, may soon turn into an economic one. There may well be enough Conservatives who will say “not in my name,” and even risk deselection to take a stand.

Or as the young Conservative MP Paul Masterton tweeted, “If hardline Brexiteers want to lob a grenade for an ideological purist fantasy fire on. But my patience + goodwill will be gone. This deal is as far as I’m prepared to go.”

May will continue to try to get some assurances from Brussels to win votes, but in return the EU will want to be confident that whatever they give won’t be rejected; that’s tricky. If there is no EU white knight, then May has two plausible, but fraught, options.

One is that she could seek to forge a cross-party consensus of some sort, perhaps formalized in some form of consultative body composed of Labour and other MPs — a de facto German-style grand coalition. That would suggest she’s willing to accept demands for a softer Brexit, including remaining in the EU’s customs union permanently.

This was something she couldn’t contemplate before last year’s confidence vote in her leadership, but winning that bought her a 12-month reprieve from being challenged by her own party. This option could eliminate the need for the controversial backstop and win over enough Labour support to pass a deal. It would be an extraordinary step, given Britain’s adversarial political history, but we are also in uncharted territory.

Another option is to call a general election without waiting for a vote of no-confidence. That would force Labour — which has remarkably not managed to convert the Tories’ mess into a big poll lead — to spell out exactly how it intends to proceed with Brexit. And it would force Conservative MPs to back their leader’s plan for Brexit and rule out no-deal — under pain of being deselected by their party. That would at least allow voters to elect a party with a coherent view on the subject.

The 2017 election was a disaster, but it can also be seen as a rejection of May’s early vision of a hard Brexit. A humbler party with a clearer, more realistic offering on Brexit might do better, especially given voter skepticism about Labour’s economic offering.

The parliamentary votes so far this week may seem like a noisy sideshow, but they underscore the divisions that have made the Conservatives dysfunctional as a ruling party as long as the Europe question remains unresolved. And they underscore the strength of support for avoiding a no-deal exit, something hardline Brexiters are now advocating.

It will be May who will have to decide if Britain leaves the EU without a deal. If she fails to pass her deal, she could back down and agree to remain in the customs union permanently. Or members of her own party could vote with Labour to bring down the government. Either way, a showdown with the eurosceptic wing of her own party is inevitable. Only one side can win.


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