Over the past week, Britain has given a new meaning to political roller coaster. On Sunday it appeared that Theresa May’s “withdrawal agreement” — provisionally agreed with the EU last year only to be rejected by MPs soon after — appeared dead in the water. Then came rumours of a sudden trip to Strasbourg by May to meet European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker on Monday night, during which “legally binding” additions to the deal (but not to the agreement document itself) were made, raising the prospect of the deal passing after all.
If at that stage May knew that her Attorney General Geoffrey Cox was going to maintain that the additions didn’t change the legal risks around the Irish backstop, she did a good job of hiding it, triumphantly insisting that these latest additions would “strengthen and improve” the deal and “deliver on the instruction of the British people.”
Just hours later, Cox’s legal advice emerged, suggesting that the basic risks remained unchanged; and that were the backstop (that is in the agreement to prevent a hard border developing on the island of Ireland) to be entered into, there was no internationally lawful way of exiting it unilaterally. May’s withdrawal agreement was then firmly rejected by MPs albeit by a smaller majority than before.
However, it’s done little to dent May’s hopes of attempting to get the deal through again — with no prospect of further changes from an increasingly frustrated European Union, she’s set to ask MPs to back it again, this time armed with the real possibility of Brexit being delayed further. After MPs said they wanted to avoid a no-deal Brexit and gave her the go-ahead to push for a delay to Brexit, May will next week offer the choice to “hard” Brexiteers: vote for my deal and get a short delay to Brexit (till June 30 at the latest) or face the risk of a heavily delayed Brexit or no Brexit at all.
Chaos, the norm
This whole process has been riddled with hypocrisy, chaos and a lack of any sense of reality. Many of her critics have pointed out that while insisting the 2016 public vote had to be abided by no matter how little was known at the time and the lack of specificity in the question, May appears to have no qualms about going back to Parliament as many times as she can muster with the very same question, hopeful that eventually MPs will buckle.
Chaotic scenes have become the norm — not least on Wednesday when in a very dramatic turn of events and to the surprise of almost everyone — the government was defeated in its attempt to avoid an amendment to its no-deal Brexit motion. The government had tried to make its motion on avoiding crashing out of the EU subject to certain conditions, but MPs by an ultra-thin margin voted to make it unconditional, with even cabinet ministers defying the party whips and abstaining.
On Thursday, Stephen Barclay, Britain’s Brexit Secretary who had spoken in the House of Commons in favour of the government’s plans to delay Brexit, subsequently went on to vote against the motion. Even the party’s chief whip abstained on that vote, despite whipping Conservative MPs to vote with the government. It would be hard for a televised political show to match reality for drama.
However, the disconnection with reality is perhaps the most striking factor of all. It’s far from a new observation: the Brexit process has repeatedly been marked by positioning that has little basis in the real world — whether it was the contention by Britain’s trade minister Liam Fox back in 2017 that a trade agreement with the EU would be one of the “easiest in human history” to forge (while in reality the EU and the UK are just discussing the divorce proceedings and have not even really moved into exploring the future in depth!).
Or the suggestion from Boris Johnson — the former foreign minister — that the Irish border issue was being overblown and was rather like the Millennium Bug. Or the suggestion from some Brexiteers that Britain could do just fine even if it were to crash out of the EU with no agreement, with deals with India, the US and beyond could easily make up for trade with Europe (the UK currently trades more with Ireland than it does with Brazil, China, Australia, South Africa and India combined, while a free trade agreement with the US that scrapped every tariff that currently existed between the two countries would lead to an uptick of less than 0.5 per cent to growth in the long term compared to the multi-per-cent loss from existing the customs union and single market).
That lack of perspective was on display again this week, as some Brexiteers attempted to push for a no-deal exit and a transition period to ease businesses in, despite clear signals from the EU all along that this was out of the question. It is also evident in May’s continued attempts to reject calls for compromise, and the rather accommodating suggestion by European Council President Donald Tusk that he would be prepared to convince other EU nations were the UK to push for a longer delay to Brexit to sort out what it wanted.
The combination of double standards, delusion and chaos has been toxic and has rendered the future pretty much impossible to gauge. May’s gamble may well pay off and convince enough of her MPs and those of confidence partner, the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, to back her eventually. Also buoying her is the fear that too many upsets could finally spell the end of the government and trigger an election, potentially bringing a radically left-wing Labour government to power. Even some of May’s sharpest critics have admitted they are even more fearful at that prospect than they are of a no-deal exit.
As for Labour, its big moment could come next week, when May’s withdrawal agreement returns to the House. A backbench amendment is expected to be tabled that would involve backing May’s deal but only if it were subject to a public vote (that is, a second referendum). Labour has indicated it is keeping all options on the table. “I… reiterate our support for a public vote, not as political point-scoring but as a realistic option to break the deadlock,” Corbyn told the House of Commons on Thursday evening.
Compounding the uncertainty is what the EU will do next. Britain may well ask for a short or a long extension but will the EU grant it? They’ve said not unless there’s a credible reason for doing so — the prospect of something the UK Parliament can rally around. And that of course remains as far off as ever.