Brexit: On Theresa May’s failed trump card and future of UK

Vidya Ram London | Updated on March 31, 2019

With time running out, the Govt will now have to come up with a fresh game plan to avoid another impasse

One of the striking features of Britain’s long winding road to Brexit has been the number of possible outcomes that have come along with it.

Friday’s developments were no exception. The government’s attempt to get the withdrawal treaty part of its withdrawal agreement — without the political declaration on future relations — failed, with 344 MPs opposing it and 286 voting for it, leaving its strategy in tatters.

The government has sought to put a positive spin on it — emphasising the closing margin compared to the previous votes (58 as opposed to 149 on March 12, and 230, in January). However, unlike in previous votes, Theresa May had, earlier this week, played her trump card — a pledge to step down and make way for a successor ahead of the next phase of negotiations (the full-blown negotiations on the future relationship the UK would want to have with Europe).

Not convincing

While it convinced some hardline Brexiteers, including Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, it wasn’t enough for others. Some Brexit supporters, such as Indian-origin MPs Priti Patel and Suella Braverman, voted against the deal, insisting it undermined Britain’s sovereignty.

The Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland is also not for turning. Earlier this week, rather strikingly, its deputy leader, Nigel Dodds, told the BBC that if they had to choose between the risk of being locked in the backstop that potentially threatened the unity of the United Kingdom or no Brexit at all, they’d go for the latter.

The step of separating the legal text of the withdrawal treaty from the political declaration had been partly designed to appeal to wavering Labour MPs, even as that party’s leadership warned that agreeing to it would amount to giving the green light to the “blindest of blind Brexits”. This would be all the more so because of May’s pledge to stand down, and because there are many Conservative politicians – with very different views of the road ahead – who want to take her place.

They range from Brexiteers such as Boris Johsnon and Dominic Raab to Sajid Javid (the first South Asian Home Secretary, who has adopted a position firmly between the two sides) and Amber Rudd, who had campaigned to ‘remain’ and supports a softer Brexit.

Under an extension granted to the UK by the EU earlier this month, Britain had time till 11 pm on Friday to pass the withdrawal agreement if it wanted an extension till May 22. Without this, it has time till April 12 to come up with alternatives, but getting an extension beyond that is not guaranteed and could be vetoed by EU member states.

However, despite signs of frustration, senior EU leaders have been appealing to member states not to give up on Britain. Donald Tusk, the European Council President, has called on the EU not to betray the 6 million who signed a petition calling on the government to revoke Brexit, or the 1 million who marched through London calling for a second referendum. In addition, May herself has finally begun to make it clear that she’s eager to avoid a no-deal scenario, even as her deal’s been rejected.

Speaking after the vote on Friday, she told MPs that the government would press for an “orderly Brexit” that respected the referendum result. That means almost certainly that Britain will want to push for a longer extension that would require the country to take part in European Parliamentary elections on May 23.

However, to convince EU leaders that Britain should be given more time, Britain will have to come up with a game plan. The difficulty of doing this became abundantly clear last week when MPs rejected all eight options put forward to them in an indicative voting process on Wednesday.

Yet, the indicative votes’ architects do believe it does offer a route ahead, and are hoping to put a shorter list of the options that commanded the most support to MPs to another indicative vote on Monday.

Among those that could make it to the list are making any deal subject to a confirmatory public vote (a second referendum) and keeping Britain in the Customs union.

One thing the government could then attempt is putting May’s deal in a final run-off with one of those options. But there’s still a risk that both could fail to command a majority. Acknowledging the impasse, May has also hinted that a general election might be the only way of moving forward. “I fear we are reaching the limits of this process in this House.”

However, this is also not without risks: Current polls put the parties almost neck and neck (35 per cent Conservative, 31 per cent Labour, according to a YouGov poll published on March 17).

Swift action

But whatever happens, action will need to be swift. The anger on the streets was palpable on Parliament Square and beyond, as some MPs and journalists faced heavy intimidation and accusations of treachery from some Brexit supporters who had gathered there.

Published on March 31, 2019

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