- Theresa May has just over three months to save her Brexit project.
- With little support for her deal in the UK Parliament, the prime minister needs to think again.
- Despite the huge difficulties she faces, some options still remain.
- Here’s how the prime minister could still find a route out of her Brexit nightmare.
Theresa May heads into the New Year after the most difficult month of her premiership thanks to the continuing turmoil and uncertainty over Brexit.
With the Brexit deal May secured with the EU gathering little support in Parliament, May has been forced to fight off multiple attempts to oust her from both inside and outside her party.
In recent weeks the UK prime minister was forced to postpone her planned Brexit deal vote in parliament, fought a brutal one-day leadership challenge launched by her own MPs, and suffered public humiliation at the hands of EU leaders in Brussels.
With the possibility of a further vote of no confidence in May’s government in the UK parliament, it has become increasingly difficult to see how she can find a way out of her current predicament.
So is May’s Brexit project now doomed to failure, or is there still a route out for the British prime minister?
Here are five ways Brexit could now pan out.
Pass a tweaked deal
More than 100 Conservative MPs have pledged to vote against May’s Brexit deal, with the Democratic Unionist Party, which props up her minority government, also committed to vote it down. With Labour and other opposition parties also opposed to May’s deal, many assume it is impossible for her to win a majority in parliament for this, or any deal.
But is it really as impossible as it looks?
While Labour are opposed to the deal as it stands, there is a chance that they could change their mind if May manages to tweak her deal. If May were to drop her red lines and seek a renegotiated deal in which the UK would stay in a Customs Union with the EU then it is not impossible to imagine Labour either backing the deal explicitly, or abstaining.
As one senior adviser to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn told Business Insider this month: “I could see a scenario where May comes back with a slightly softer deal and we say ‘well that is the best we can do. That nearly meets our objectives’ and then we will try to renegotiate in office.”
Pivot to a softer Brexit
At the start of the Brexit process, May was persuaded by her then adviser Nick Timothy to rule out staying in the Single Market and Customs Union after Brexit.
However, by committing to cutting all customs and trade ties with the EU, May made it all but inevitable that there would need to be a hard border with Northern Ireland and the Republic. By risking that, it also became inevitable that she would lose the support of the DUP.
However, with May’s red lines running up against the unbreakable walls of EU policy and UK parliamentary arithmetic, she may ultimately decide that she has little choice but to drop them. As I have argued before, the only sort of Brexit that has a hope of passing through parliament is a soft Brexit.
Faced with the grim reality of risking the economic and political pain of a no-deal Brexit, or abandoning Brexit altogether, May could ultimately decide that a soft Brexit is better than a bad Brexit or no Brexit at all.
There are little more than three months to go until March 29 when Britain will automatically leave the EU under the terms of the Article 50 withdrawal process. In that time May must win a vote in parliament for her deal, then go through the painstaking process of passing the necessary legislation to implement it. She must do all of this without a majority in parliament and with more than a third of her own MPs publicly calling on her to stand down. This is not so much a mountain to climb as it is a deep-sea trench to swim. The prime minister has far too much to do, and far too little time and political capital to do it with.
Given this is the case, May could ultimately have little choice but to seek an extension to the Article 50 process. The Irish Taoiseach has already offered to assist with such an extension and it is not impossible to imagine other EU leaders falling into line.
Doing so is not without its problems. Any extension would likely mean Britain would have to take part in this May’s European Parliament elections and it would also be treated as a betrayal both by large numbers of her own MPs as well as many Brexit voters. The EU would also be reluctant to agree an extension unless there were an explicit purpose and end point for that extension. Simply kicking the problem six or 12 months down the road, without any method to solve it over that period, is unlikely to be warmly received by the EU.
Call a second referendum
The prime minister has repeatedly insisted that there will not be a second Brexit referendum. However, she was similarly insistent that there would not be a snap election in 2017 and that she would not pull her Brexit vote this week.
What recent events have proven is that what May does or doesn’t want out of this process is no longer the main issue. All that matters is what is possible to get through Parliament.
Right now the prospects of passing an EU referendum through parliament, without the explicit support of the government, looks incredibly difficult. Even if the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn were to back one, and as BI has reported his team is very reluctant to do so, there would likely be significant numbers of backbench Labour MPs who would vote against it. And while the number of Conservative MPs who would agree to a referendum is increasing, the numbers still don’t look good enough for one to pass.
And even if the principle of holding another vote was to pass, it would take the best part of six months to agree on what that vote should look like and pass the act of parliament needed to trigger one.
However, that doesn’t mean it is impossible. If May is unable to pass a deal then she may be persuaded that a referendum is a better option than either a general election or a no-deal Brexit. And while the process would take time, the EU would probably agree some form of extension to the process if it allowed the possibility of Britain remaining in the bloc.
If all of the above fails then there is one last option open to the prime minister – cancel Brexit.
The ECJ ruled this month that Britain has the right to unilaterally withdraw the Article 50 process if it chooses to. Obviously doing so would be a politically explosive and arguably undemocratic. But faced with the possibility of doing so or allowing Britain to fall out of all existing trade, customs, security and aviation rules with nothing to replace them, then calling the whole thing off could be the least worst option. In any case it need not be a complete cancellation. The prime minister could choose to withdraw Article 50 under the condition of calling a second referendum that would effectively be a simple re-run of the vote in 2016. This would allow Brexit voters another chance to get what they want while avoiding the utter chaos of leaving without a deal.
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