Now for the Hard Part: One Week On

Now for the Hard Part: One Week On

November 2018 | Politics

The Brexit deal is in deep trouble, yet Theresa May remains in post. Her reaction to parliamentary defeat will prove to be crucial in determining what happens next.

A week is a long time in Politics, and it appears that some ERG members have been thinking along the lines expressed in my post last week on the Brexit deal. There now isn't going to be a Conservative leadership challenge before the Brexit deal vote on the 11th December. At least one Tory MP has said that he's waiting to see Theresa May's reaction to losing the vote before submitting his letter. Her fate is inexorably tied to what she says in the critical moments after the deal is voted down. If she comes up with a coherent plan that can draw the support of both Brexiteers and Remainers she'll keep her job. If she tries any of the following she'll be forced out:

My guess is that she will react to that parliamentary defeat by seeking to add a unilateral break clause to the backstop at the EU summit later that week. It will be too late to make any changes to the agreement after that date because the EU27 need time to ratify it, as does the UK. Make no mistake, it's the backstop that is the problem. The rest of the Withdrawal Agreement is perfectly acceptable to all sides. Several Brexiteers have spoken as if the transition period is going to happen regardless of whether the deal passes. It's an open question as to whether she'll succeed in getting changes, Macron and Varadkar are the key figures here. It's worth noting that the Irish government is in difficulty as well, with Fianna Fail threatening to pull support in the new year. If the EU agree to add a break clause to the backstop, then the deal will pass. If they don't, it won't, and my analysis from last week will come into play.

It's quite clear that no-one trusts the prime minister to negotiate the next phase of Brexit, including most of her cabinet. That lack of trust means that she is bound to lose a leadership vote when it comes - and one will happen in the next six months. If Theresa May is replaced, I could easily see her successor cutting a deal with Jeremy Corbyn - trading support for their proposed solution to the Brexit impasse in return for an election. Corbyn and McDonnell will go for that, so long as it's not a No Deal Brexit on offer. Last year's election result means that they're confident of their ability to win over voters in a campaign. They might be in for a shock though, depending on who the Tory leader they're facing is.

John McDonnell caused a stir yesterday by stating that a second referendum was inevitable. Corbyn doesn't want a referendum, but if he can't persuade the DUP to force an election his party won't give him a choice. Labour have spent the past two years trying to balance the interests of their strongly pro-EU membership against their moderate leave core vote. The fact that the Labour leadership don't really care about the EU has helped them do this. The problem is that a large chunk of the membership do care about the EU very much and are desperate to remain. Many of these people are strongly supportive of Corbyn, but wouldn't think twice before getting rid of him if given a straight choice between supporting the Labour leader or staying in the EU. McDonnell has exactly one priority - getting into Government - and will do anything and say anything to achieve that goal. If keeping the Labour party together requires backing Remain in a second referendum he'll do it regardless of what Corbyn thinks. His gamble is that he'll never be expected to follow through because the Tories would unite to block a referendum by forcing out any leader who backs the idea. This can't be relied upon due to a clause in party rules preventing leadership challenges in the aftermath of an unsuccessful one.

As much as I would like to see a second referendum, I don't think we'll get one. It raises too many questions of democratic legitimacy, and would require EU co-operation. Instead, we'll either get a revised deal with an amended backstop or the existing backstop will be totally replaced with the Norway Plus option - EFTA membership and a temporary customs union. This proposal is getting traction, and crucially has DUP support. The major opponent to this compromise is Theresa May, whose primary concern is reducing immigration. However, in a few months her opinion will be irrelevant.

Either way, the revised backstop proposal will enter into force in 2022, and will prove not to be temporary. The UK will eventually negotiate a bespoke arrangement with the EU but that will take years. Nothing will be agreed until it is possible for the UK to leave the customs union whilst still maintaining an open border with the Republic of Ireland, which requires either Irish Unification or new technology that hasn't been tested on a land border before. In the long-term, the relationship between the UK and the EU will mirror that of Switzerland, which both sides would be satisfied with. We may even see some of the bilateral EU-Swiss treaties extended to become trilateral agreements.

Written by Alan Chatfield