Prime Minister Theresa May emerged from the latest European Union (EU) summit last Friday with no major breakthrough in her negotiations over the United Kingdom’s exit from the Brussels-based club. In this sense, the last few weeks of political drama in Westminster and Brussels have only ‘kicked the can down the road’, and the UK remains in Brexit gridlock.
May’s trip to Brussels on Thursday and Friday came as no obvious headway was made in discussions over her pleas for a legally binding assurance that the Brexit backstop over the Irish border will not be an inescapable “trap”. To be sure, new ideas were considered, including looking for a start date for the hoped-for future UK-EU trade relationship post-Brexit, as opposed to seeking an end date for the Irish border guarantee which many UK MPs want to secure so that it is clear that this could not last indefinitely.
But nothing concrete was, ultimately, agreed. And European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker reconfirmed last Friday that there can be no renegotiation of the proposed withdrawal treaty.
This disappointment for May comes after she won last Wednesday a UK Conservative leadership confidence vote with 200 of her party’s members of parliament supporting her, while a larger than anticipated 117 dissented. While Wednesday’s result allows the prime minister to stay in power, in the immediate term at least, she remains in a politically precarious position with massive Brexit challenges ahead.
To be sure, last Wednesday’s vote had some good news for May. The 63 per cent of Conservative MP votes that May won is around the same as the 66 per cent that the then prime minister John Major had got in 1995 when he fought a leadership contest. Major went on to serve around two more years in Downing Street which underlines that, under normal circumstances, May could survive as prime minister for some time.
In part, this is because there cannot now be another Conservative leadership challenge for 12 months. Yet, May could still be forced to depart in the first few months of 2019 in what is an enormously difficult Brexit context. She acknowledged this after winning the confidence vote in what she said had been a “long and challenging day”.
One key reason May survived is that she pledged to step down before the next general elections, which is currently scheduled for 2022. This way, the prime minister won support from some MPs who believe she is an election liability, but deemed that she is the best person in coming months to try to get a Brexit withdrawal deal after two years of negotiations.
One possible trigger for her departure, for instance, could be a parliamentary ‘no-confidence vote’ — as opposed to the intra-Conservative party ballot that took place last Wednesday. Here, the official opposition Labour Party is considering its options following support for such a move from other parties, including the Scottish Nationalists.
With May now back in London, she must make the biggest political call of her premiership: On her new strategy to get the withdrawal deal over the line. This follows the postponement of the expected vote in the House of Commons last Tuesday.
As she acknowledged last week, if the vote had gone ahead last Tuesday, as initially planned, it would have lost by a “significant margin” — probably by 100-200 votes and would probably have meant the end of May’s time in Downing Street. In these circumstances, the vote will now be postponed till next month and it will take a massive political effort now to try to get it over the line.
What all of this underlines is that, despite May’s victory last Wednesday, she is even more politically isolated and weakened than before after not being backed by around a third of Conservative MPs. This shows she is now besieged and getting her agreement through parliament looks harder than ever.
Technically, May has said that the rescheduled vote could be held at any date before January 21, which she said was the last date possible under existing legislation. However, some parliamentary authorities argue that the vote could in fact be as late as on March 28 given the March 29 date for the UK to leave the EU.
The specific challenge she faces is that she is being assailed from both the political Right by those who favour a harder-exit Canada-style deal, and those from the Left of her position who either favour a softer Norway-style Brexit or even remaining in the EU.
In this context, and the febrile political climate in Westminster, there is growing support for a national referendum on the terms of any Brexit withdrawal deal, whether based on May’s or a harder or softer version. In October, an estimated 600,000 to 700,000 people marched in London for the right to have such a “people’s vote” and there is growing momentum behind this, which could include an option of remaining in the EU.
The campaign for a referendum has public support from three of the four living former prime ministers — Gordon Brown, Tony Blair and John Major. They all argue that such an outcome is now potentially the only way to decide the issue given the impasse in parliament.
What all this underlines is the continuing disagreement within the populace and political elites over Brexit. This is not just a Leave-versus-Remain debate because even those who voted to exit did so for diverse and sometimes divergent reasons, which makes fashioning support for a withdrawal agreement very difficult.
And the continuing divisions within the electorate on these issues are underscored in polls that now generally show more people favouring EU membership than not, and the country split over whether maintaining access to the European Single Market (akin to a Norway-style deal), or being able to limit migration (as a Canada-style deal would allow), should be the key objective in Brexit negotiations.
Britain therefore remains badly divided and still heading towards what could still be a hard, disorderly Brexit that would see no withdrawal deal agreed. In this sense, this week’s political drama has only ‘kicked the can down the road’. Fundamentally, the UK is likely to remain in Brexit gridlock into the New Year period.
Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.