Theresa May’s Last Dash for a Deal

The British prime minister wins minor concessions in an 11th-hour effort to save Brexit—and her premiership.

Prime Minister Theresa May leaves 10 Downing Street on Nov. 14, 2018 in London, England.
Prime Minister Theresa May leaves 10 Downing Street on Nov. 14, 2018 in London, England. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

The future of Brexit was in the balance as British Prime Minister Theresa May dashed to Strasbourg, France, on Monday night in a last-ditch attempt to tweak a deal with the European Union that so far has dismally failed to pass through Parliament. May’s eleventh-hour diplomatic scramble could, if it succeeds in pleasing enough rebel members of her own Conservative Party, save her career and result in the United Kingdom exiting the EU as planned on March 29.

If her compromise falls short, not only May’s own premiership but the whole Brexit project is likely to collapse in confusion.

“If she fails, insiders are saying that she will resign as soon as Thursday,” said one senior U.K. government source not authorized to speak on the record. “You could say that [May] has been drinking in the Last Chance Saloon for some time now. But this looks like last orders at the Last Chance Saloon.”

So far, members of parliament have balked at backing May’s Brexit deal for two reasons. Opponents of Brexit say it’s pointless, as it leaves Britain closely tied to the EU’s laws with no say in their making. Ardent supporters of Brexit—including the truculent group of Conservative rebels known as the European Research Group—have opposed it because it commits Britain to remain inside Europe’s Customs Union in order to avoid creating a border between the Republic of Ireland and the British province of Northern Ireland.

This commitment to remain inside the Customs Union until a future technological solution can be found to create a frictionless border—known as the “Irish backstop”—has become the main sticking point in Parliament’s rectifying the deal. In January, May lost a vote on her proposals by a historic 230 votes—including over 100 members of her own party.

May’s rush to meet top European officials on Monday after weeks of fruitless talks was a final attempt to secure a legally binding mechanism for Britain to leave the Customs Union unilaterally—a major change to her original withdrawal agreement, which placed all power in the hands of Brussels to eventually let Britain leave the EU.

In an evening of high political drama on Monday night, May’s cabinet secretary, David Lidington, told MPs that May had secured a “joint, legally binding instrument” that ensured that “the EU cannot try to trap the U.K. in the backstop indefinitely.” In fact, what May came away with was a carefully worded statement simply stating that “the EU cannot act with the intent of applying the backstop indefinitely,” she told journalists after her meeting with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. “If they do, it can be challenged through arbitration, and if they are found to be in breach, the U.K. can suspend the backstop.”

Opponents of May on both sides of the House of Commons were quick to argue that the “meaningful clarifications and legal guarantees” offered by Juncker didn’t amount to any kind of concession at all.

“This evening’s agreement with the European Commission does not contain anything approaching the changes Theresa May promised Parliament,” opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn told the Commons. “Since her Brexit deal was so overwhelmingly rejected, the prime minister has recklessly run down the clock, failed to effectively negotiate with the EU, and refused to find common ground for a deal Parliament could support.”

Even hardcore Brexit supporters such as European Research Group member Steve Baker were unimpressed. The government has “put a very good gloss on something which falls short of what was expected,” he told BBC Radio. And Conservative opponents of Brexit such as backbencher Damian Collins vowed on Twitter to vote against the deal because “nothing has really changed  … we have the power to apply to an arbitration panel to leave the back stop, but not the right to leave by ourselves.”

Crucially, even the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party, a small group on which May relies for her parliamentary majority, were skeptical about the concessions. “[We] know the story of the emperor’s clothes and we just hope tomorrow morning the emperor’s clothes won’t reveal something very embarrassing for the prime minister,” DUP MP Jim Shannon told the Commons.

The government planned a “meaningful vote” on May’s amended deal on Tuesday, but by the afternoon pundits were predicting a triple-figure defeat. And one thing is clear: If May fails a second time to get approval for her deal, the future of her premiership, and of Brexit itself, is in serious doubt.

Parliament faces four choices: to approve an amended May deal, which essentially preserves British participation in the EU’s single market and Customs Union; to crash out of the EU without a deal, triggering delays at the borders and a serious economic crisis; to defer a decision; or to hold a second Brexit referendum.

Monday night’s communiques from Brussels already seemed to assume that a delay in the March 29 departure date would be inevitable. Juncker told reporters that the U.K.’s withdrawal should be complete by the time of the European Parliament elections of May 23 to 26, otherwise Britain would be obliged as a member state to elect new members of the European body. “It is this deal, or #Brexit may not happen at all,” tweeted Juncker, who also in a speech on Monday called the moment Britain voted to leave by a 52 percent to 48 percent margin in 2016 “a sad day.”

Many pro-Brexit MPs—including a few members of the Labour opposition—fear that any delay may lead to Brexit being diluted or canceled altogether. Government whips have ruthlessly played on exactly that fear as a way to corral skeptical MPs behind May’s deal. Others, particularly in the European Research Group, believe that toppling May and installing a more pro-Brexit Conservative leader could be the only way to achieve the so-called hard Brexit—essentially, leaving the Customs Union and trading with the EU on World Trade Organization terms—that they crave.

But so far the only clear majority to emerge in the Commons is in opposition to leaving with no deal. That suggests that a delay, if only of a few months, is fast becoming the only consensus if May’s deal fails.

Update, March 12, 2019: This story was updated to include the latest vote estimates.

Owen Matthews, the author of Stalin's Children, is based in the United Kingdom. He was Newsweek’s Moscow bureau chief from 2006 to 2016. Twitter: @owenmatth

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