What next for Theresa May?
“Has something happened this week?” British Prime Minister Theresa May meekly queried. A dull moment would have been a newsworthy event in the never-ending story of the Brexit drama, effectively chaos on steroids.
At the start of last week, May pulled the vote on her withdrawal deal. On Wednesday, she had to fight off a ballot of no confidence among her own Conservative MPs, not least by promising not to fight the next election, and ended the week being stonewalled in Brussels.
Pulling the vote on her withdrawal deal was expected, although the endless statements from loyalist ministers up to the last moment hardly prepared the territory. One reasonable certainty is that unamended, the May agreement has no viable route through Parliament.
Sensing blood, the arch Brexiteers finally garnered the 48 letters of no confidence to trigger a no-confidence ballot among Conservative MPs on May’s leadership. For once, the Downing Street operation showed teeth. The ballot was confirmed in the morning and carried out in the evening. The short window meant the rebels had a minute window to build momentum.
That said, 117 Conservative MPs voted against her out of 317. This is hardly a platform for her “strong and stable” government. These hardline Brexiteers are now engaged in a rearguard battle. Having fired blanks in their opening series of salvos to topple May, their leadership bid flopped haplessly, only serving to shame the Conservative Party.
In what can only be seen as an irresponsible hissy fit, some are even considering going on strike and missing key votes to ensure the government has no majority. The danger is that they are such ideologues that they are prepared to take whole country down with them.
Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt, typically a mild-mannered and diplomatic Remainer, took to Twitter to slam the European Reform Group (ERG) of Brexiteers. “They never, ever stop. Votes against them, letters going in late — nothing matters to ERG,” he tweeted. “After the apocalypse, all that will be left will be ants and Tory MPs complaining about Europe and their leader.”
Yet the issues are not all in one party. Labour is also bitterly divided and consequently inept. The majority of Labour MPs have never had confidence in their leader Jeremy Corbyn. His inability to land a blow on a government in total meltdown is a stunning indictment of his leadership. The Labour leadership still has no clear policy on the way forward on Brexit, what sort of deal it could support, or if it could back a second referendum.
Effectively, Parliament has acquired huge power over Brexit at the expense of the government.
All options are now back on the table, with the possible exception of the existing May deal.
She could kill off that deal by simply submitting it to the House of Commons for a vote. She knows that the deal was never alive, so this would be to make an official declaration of death. This was essentially the threat she carried with her to Brussels. Yet this does not resolve the key question of what will happen next.
May still insists that EU leaders will eventually agree to “clarifications” and “reassurances” about her Brexit agreement. Notably, on the vexed issue of the Northern Ireland backstop she has had no joy. The trouble is that EU leaders are not blind to events in Westminster, and know that May cannot get her deal through Parliament even with a few tweaks. They will not give away concessions to be banked for later for a deal that has no lifespan.
If May was humiliated in Westminster, she was equally so in Brussels as she arrived to plead and beg. EU Commission chief Jean Claude Juncker even declared he was wearing a green tie in solidarity with the Irish. Yes, Ireland now has more influence in the EU than Britain. Effectively, this loss of influence is one of the prices Britain will pay by leaving.
May got absolutely nothing. Even the prearranged clauses that had been drafted were removed from the final summit communique. Instead, the EU declared that “work on preparedness at all levels for the consequences of the UK’s withdrawal to be intensified, taking into account all possible outcomes.” EU leaders were clear: The onus is on Britain to come forward with proposals that would have the backing of Parliament.
Effectively, Parliament has acquired huge power over Brexit at the expense of the government. Some in the British Cabinet believe that May should test out various scenarios in indicative votes in the House of Commons. The aim would be to flesh out if there was any form of majority for a bunch of options that included no deal, a Norway-style soft Brexit, a harder Canada-plus deal or a second referendum.
The media has carried rumors that May’s chief of staff has made the first tentative plans inside No. 10 Downing Street for a second referendum. Senior ministers have made discreet overtures to centrist Labour MPs on this. That only opens a new passionate debate on what should be the question. Should it include a tick box for remaining in the EU? Could there really be a three-way vote for a deal, no deal or remain?
With just 100 days to go until March 29, the scheduled date for Brexit, the chances that Article 50 will be delayed have risen. Few remaining options can be implemented in this tight window. It is going down to the wire.
• Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). Twitter: @Doylech