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As ministers quit, Theresa May faces a tough battle to save Brexit deal

Vidya Ram London | Updated on November 16, 2018

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Hopes that Britain’s course to Brexit was finally framed in certainty were firmly dashed on Thursday as several ministerial resignations – including of Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab – and a push for a no confidence motion in the Prime Minister triggered a new political crisis, threatening the future of the deal thrashed out earlier this week.

Prime Minister Theresa May has shown no sign of giving in. “Am I going to see this through? Yes,” she said during a press conference on Thursday evening in which she directly appealed to the public, pointing to the centrality of her deal for keeping Britain’s manufacturing sector (and associated jobs) alive, as well as avoiding a hard border in Northern Ireland, and ending fee movement. “Leadership is about taking the right decision not the easy ones.”  She warned that failing to unite behind the deal would lead to unknown consequences, taking Britain down a path of “deep and grave uncertainty.”

Earlier in the day during a three-hour session in the House of Commons,  in a veiled threat to those hard Brexiteers that they risked jeopardising the entire Brexit project, she also warned “We can choose to leave with no deal. We can risk no Brexit at all. Or we can choose to unite and support the best deal that can be negotiated.” 

Following the epic five hour-long cabinet meeting, during which up to 10 ministers had been said to express their reservations about the deal, Theresa May had announced she had secured cabinet backing for the deal on Wednesday evening. The move had been swiftly welcomed by European Union leaders, the 585-page text of the deal had been published, with explanatory notes, offering politicians in both Britain and on the continent the opportunity to make informed assessments of what had been agreed. A summit for EU leaders to finalise and formalised would take place on November 25, “if nothing extraordinary happens” EU President Donald Tusk said earlier on Thursday.

This entire process is now mired in uncertainty as Raab, and Esther McVey, the Work and Pensions Secretary both stood down alongside junior ministers Shailesh Vara, Suella Braverman, Ranil Jayawardena and Ann-Marie Trevelyan. All pointed to concerns that under the terms being proposed for a backstop – to avoid the creation of a hard border on the island of Ireland – Britain would effectively be locked in an indefinite customs arrangement with the EU, with no way of a unilateral decision to exit by Britain. Another politician, Rehman Chishti stepped down as Conservative Vice Chairman and the Prime Minister’s Trade Envoy to Pakistan over both Brexit and the UK’s failure to offer Asia Bib immediate asylum, arguing it was failing to live up to core principles.

 

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the chair of the influential hard-Brexit campaign European Research Group submitted a letter to the Conservative Party’s 1922 committee calling for a no-confidence vote in May’s leadership. If the committee, made up of Conservative backbenchers, received letters from enough Conservative MPs calling for this, it would trigger a vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister, and a leadership battle for the party and country. “The problem was having a Remain Prime Minister,” Rees-Mogg told journalists after the submission of his letter. “This is not Brexit, this is a failure of government policy,” he insisted.

Political-pummelling

 

During a heated session of the House of Commons on Thursday, a weary-looking May faced a political-pummelling from all sides of the House on a deal that one MP described as already “dead in the water.”. Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn accused her of a “huge and damaging failure” after two years of bungled negotiations, while the party’s Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer indicated that the party would be voting against the deal. “Hard” Brexiteers including Rees-Mogg expressed their dismay at the terms of the deal, with one labelling it a “Hotel California” Brexit deal that failed to deliver the decisive sovereignty that had been promised to voters.  Still others, such as Conservative People’s Vote campaigner Anna Soubry reiterated their call for a second referendum as the only way out of the political crisis that Britain found itself in. The Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland on whose vote the government has depended since the May 2017 General Election has also made plain its opposition to the deal. “The choice is now clear.  Stand up for the whole of the United Kingdom or vote for a vassal state with the break-up of the United Kingdom,” said Nigel Dodds, the DUP’s deputy leader. A Scottish National Party MP criticised the Prime Minister for bringing to the House a deal that was already “dead in the water.”

A defiant May continued to reject these calls insisting that Brexit was a long-term project that did involve the end of free movement,  the end of the remit of the European Court of Justice and the maintenance of the integrity of the country. She insisted that the backstop as it was set out in the deal was the only way for the government to ensure that they met the promises made to all the countries of the United Kingdom, including the pledge to the people of Northern Ireland that a hard border would be avoided at all costs. “A good Brexit, a Brexit that is in the national interest is still possible. We have made a decisive breakthrough.”

Pound tumbled

The British pound tumbled amid the uncertainty, after rising as a definite deal appeared to be on the cards. Businesses while expressing their caution – particularly around the lack of detail on the future relationship plans within the document – welcomed the certainty it offered around the transition period and on the avoidance of a hard border.

 

The road forward now remains very unclear.  “The real question is what happens to the Prime Minister now,” says Kings College London Professor Anand Menon, and director of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative. He said that there was a scenario where the Prime Minister could still win a no-confidence vote and move forward with the deal though the numbers appeared against her, with at least 40 Conservative MPs set to oppose her. The three scenarios: Britain getting a deal along the lines that May had negotiated, a no-deal crash out of the EU and a second referendum now were all possibilities, he said. “What we are confronted with is a succession of highly implausible outcomes, one of which will happen but it’s extremely hard to know which.”

Published on November 15, 2018

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