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Battered and Bereft, May Loses Again on Brexit

With the EU losing patience, no one in the House of Commons seems to know what to do next.

Balloons spelling EU fly beside Union Jack and European Union flags outside the Houses of Parliament in London on Dec. 10, 2018. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Balloons spelling EU fly beside Union Jack and European Union flags outside the Houses of Parliament in London on Dec. 10, 2018. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

The future of Theresa May’s premiership, as well as the outcome of Brexit itself, was thrown into doubt on Tuesday night after the British government suffered a second historic defeat on its plans to withdraw from the European Union. And now, with the EU losing patience, many Britons believe the very fate of their nation is clouded with perilous uncertainty.

May’s deal to exit the EU was defeated by 149 votes in the House of Commons—less than the historic 230-vote margin of a previous vote in January but nonetheless a devastating blow to her authority. Seventy-five members of May’s own Conservative Party defied the government whip to trash the deal, including both hard-line pro-Brexit MPs of the European Research Group and MPs who want either closer alignment with the EU or to scrap Brexit altogether.

Britain is due to leave the EU on March 29, and with little more than two weeks remaining, there is no chance of a new deal being struck with Brussels. That leaves Parliament with two immediate options: to crash out of the union with no deal, which a clear majority of MPs do not want, or to ask Brussels for more time. In the wake of the government’s latest defeat, a shocked-looking May confirmed that MPs would be given a free vote (without government instructions) Wednesday on excluding no deal. On Thursday, they will vote on whether to ask for an extension to Article 50, the clause in EU law that regulates how members can leave the union. Both motions are likely to pass.

But kicking the decision a few months down the road will simply delay the really crucial decision on how—or indeed whether—Britain will actually leave the EU. Assuming that Britain does ask for an extension, it will be up to all the EU states to unanimously determine how long it will be. Top EU officials have consistently said an extension will only be granted for a serious reason—including either a second referendum or a new British general election.

“Should the UK hand in a reasoned request for an extension, I expect a credible and convincing justification,” tweeted Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte in the wake of May’s defeat. “The [EU] … will consider the request and decide by unanimity. The smooth functioning of the EU institutions needs to be ensured.”

A short extension—for instance, until the end of May, when the EU is due to hold elections to the European Parliament—risks merely prolonging Britain’s political deadlock and ending in a similar no-deal cliff edge. A longer extension of a year or more—proposed by French President Emmanuel Macron, among others—would mean Britain electing new members of the European Parliament who would, if Brexit went ahead, then have to leave. One thing is certain: Some kind of withdrawal agreement will have to be negotiated if Britain is to enjoy a planned two-year transition period before its final exit.

“Listening to debate in @HouseofCommons : there seems to be a dangerous illusion that the UK can benefit from a transition in the absence of the WA [withdrawal agreement],” tweeted chief EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier during the debate. “Let me be clear: the only legal basis for a transition is the WA. No withdrawal agreement means no transition.”

In other words, the EU is fast losing patience with British dithering, and the chances of an accidental no deal are growing. May’s twice-defeated withdrawal deal was two years in the making. The only plausible alternative that can be negotiated in a limited time would be “something off the shelf,” said one senior European diplomat who did not wish to be quoted speculating on as-yet undecided EU policy. That means “either Switzerland or EEA”—a reference to the European Economic Area of countries comprising Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway that agree to abide by the EU’s rules in exchange for free access to the single market. “There’s not that many choices on that particular shelf.”

But remaining in the single market on terms similar to Norway’s would mean accepting the EU’s principle of freedom of movement—a red line that May has passionately resisted. Anger over uncontrolled immigration from the EU was a major wellspring, according to polls, of the pro-Brexit vote in June 2016. A Norway-style deal would be precisely the “Brexit in name only” that Brexit hard-liners hate and would probably split the Conservatives irreparably.

The more immediate question is over May’s leadership. Conservative whips had been speculating that a small defeat of under 100 votes could mean that May might bring back her battered deal for a third vote before March 29. But with the rebellion in her party still so massive, “it’s very difficult for her to argue for the merits of having another go,” said one member of May’s administration who reluctantly voted for the deal. “Colleagues have been wondering all afternoon whether [May] will resign tonight if the defeat is particularly heavy. Everyone acknowledges that she is not a quitter and believes it’s her duty to deliver Brexit. But she hasn’t. And I don’t see how she can, now.”

Before the crushing defeat, May insisted in a rasping voice that she was “focused on winning” and warned Commons that “Brexit could be lost” if the divorce agreement was rejected again. The day before the vote, she rushed to Strasbourg, France, to try to secure more concessions from European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, including that Britain would not be trapped in a customs union arrangement intended to prevent a border between Ireland, an EU member, and Britain’s Northern Ireland. But even Attorney General Geoffrey Cox was not convinced by the flimsy assurances she brought back, formally telling Commons on Tuesday that there was no guarantee that Britain would be able to eventually leave the customs union—effectively torpedoing his own boss’s argument.

The Conservative Party now faces some tough choices. Many hard-line Brexit backers believe that May can be replaced by a different, more staunchly pro-Brexit premier who can negotiate a more distant relationship with the EU. But a Conservative leadership contest would be a major political distraction at a crucial juncture in national history.

“I think voters would crucify us at the polls if we began a leadership contest now,” said one senior civil servant not authorized to speak on the record. “And even if we go through all that palaver, we’re still back at square one. [The Conservatives] don’t have a majority. There’s no magic new deal coming along. It’s going to be: new boss, same old problem.”

Such a leadership contest would usually take 12 weeks, though in the circumstances the race could be speeded up. Leading contenders include former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, a leading Brexit backer who is loved by the Conservative grass roots but despised by many of his fellow MPs; Home Secretary Sajid Javid, a former opponent of Brexit who has since changed his mind to back May’s Brexit plans; and current Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, also a moderate pro-Brexiteer.

But there’s also a major tactical problem in a change of Conservative leadership. May recently survived a leadership challenge mounted by Brexit hard-liners and now under party rules cannot be challenged again for a year. She must either resign voluntarily or be ousted by a vote of no confidence in Parliament—which could also trigger a new general election. That’s exactly what opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn wants. Some Conservatives have strategized that Corbyn remains sufficiently personally unpopular for a dynamic new Conservative leader to beat him, despite the mess the government has so far made of Brexit. But Corbyn’s consistent reluctance to make Labour an outright anti-Brexit party—partly out of personal skepticism of the EU and partly because many Labour heartlands backed Brexit—would mean that the next election would be fought with both major parties still officially backing the notion of Britain leaving the EU.

The other option to break the deadlock—and indeed the only one that might remain on the table after both May’s deal and no deal have been rejected—is the idea of a second national vote. Under pressure from grassroots Labour Party members, who overwhelmingly oppose Brexit, Corbyn has said he might be prepared to back May’s deal subject to a confirmatory referendum that would offer voters a choice between May’s withdrawal agreement and remaining in the EU. Corbyn’s idea was to avoid the political embarrassment of calling for a rerun of the 2016 referendum—and ducking the wrath of Labour Brexit supporters if a referendum overturned Brexit altogether. But if May’s deal is truly dead in the water, it’s now doubtful that there will be any kind of withdrawal agreement to vote on in any case.

In the hours after Tuesday’s vote, MPs proposed a vast and confusing array of alternative courses—from a third vote on May’s deal to a second referendum to proceeding to the transition period without a withdrawal agreement (a concoction known to MPs as the Malthouse compromise, despite its already having been explicitly ruled out by Barnier). But as parliamentarians veered wildly between fantasy and desperation, Britain’s business community—traditional Conservative Party stalwarts—showed signs of losing patience.

“Enough is enough. A new approach needed,” tweeted Carolyn Fairbairn, the director general of the Confederation of British Industry, a lobbying group that has long sounded warnings over the damage caused by Brexit uncertainty. “Extend Article 50 with a clear plan for progress: Conservatives must consign [their] red lines to history, Labour must come to table with genuine commitment to solutions. It’s time to stop this circus.”

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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