After a dramatic day of watching the Conservative Party tear itself apart and try to put itself back together again, Theresa May’s immediate political future appears to be safe. The leadership challenge was only a partial victory for the prime minister – with 200 votes of MPs in favour of her and 117 against – but she remains in post.
Brexit was the only issue on the table and May has promised to continue to seek “legally binding” assurances about the Irish backstop from the EU.
May’s bigger problems with Brexit remain intact. While it’s now known exactly how many of her MPs have no confidence in her, this only matters insofar as the likelihood of getting the withdrawal agreement and political declaration on the future EU-UK relationship through parliament. And we already know that this was going to be almost impossible. Her lack of overall majority in the House of Commons continues to be her main domestic weakness.
It seems that her only hope of seeing her deal through parliament is that enough of her MPs will be swayed by any assurances she obtains from the EU as she heads to the European Council in Brussels. Yet key EU figures, including Michel Barnier, Jean-Claude Juncker, Donald Tusk, Guy Verhofstadt and the leaders of numerous member states have all lined up to repeat the message that the withdrawal agreement is not open for renegotiation.
The prime minister and her supporters are clearly banking on the EU’s fear of a no-deal Brexit to force open the issue again. But the clock continues to tick. The UK will leave on March 29, 2019 as an automatic consequence of triggering Article 50 and there is simply no time to start unpicking the texts on the table. The UK could request an extension to Article 50 – something the prime minister has previously ruled out – but this would require the unanimous approval of the 27 other member states.
EU negotiations do often go to the wire, and last minute snags are always a possibility. The EU’s free trade agreement with Canada, for example, was held up by a vote in a regional Belgian parliament. But the time-limit means that Brexit is different, and the EU side has demonstrated during the past two years that it has been more united on this issue than on almost any other confronting Europe.
No more exceptions
What May needs to try to win back the support of the DUP and her own backbenchers is to remove the Irish backstop, render it close to meaningless or change it substantially. This is not going to happen, for the simple reason that the EU would need to effectively ditch the concerns of Ireland, a member state, to appease the UK, a departing member state. May’s desire to gain a “legally binding” guarantee from the EU on the backstop is a similarly meaningless concept.
Aside from the substantive nature of the backstop, the EU does not want to risk reopening negotiations about the finely balanced details contained within the withdrawal agreement. It would not be logical to risk destabilising the process, especially with so little time left before March 2019. And it seems to be forgotten in the middle of debates at Westminster that any reopening of negotiations would mean the involvement of all the member states – most of whom have pressing domestic issues to deal with.
The recent turn of events in the tortuous Brexit process have revealed a continuous belief in the UK of a right to exceptionalism. Having always succeeded in gaining opt-outs to the EU treaties alongside its budget rebate, there remains a prevailing view that the UK can demand special treatment. May – if she is not already aware of it – is about to find out that this exceptionalism only exists while you are a member of the club, and not outside it.
In search of a fragment
Even if May were to gain concessions from the EU, it is by no means certain that this would be enough in Westminster. Although the Irish backstop is the main issue of concern among her most vocal opponents, it is not merely a question of clarifying it but removing it, or ensuring that the UK can withdraw unilaterally. This is a non-starter as far as the EU is concerned. And since many of her most pro-Brexit MPs want the UK to leave without any deal at all, nothing she might hope to achieve is going to bear fruit.
Alternatively, she could seek the support of the opposition parties in Westminster. But this is equally unlikely to happen. Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has made clear its lack of support for the current deal, and all the opposition parties are poised to submit a motion of no confidence in the government, which could happen at any time.
May heads to Brussels, not to engage in “handbagging” as some reports suggested, but rather in the hope of securing a fragment that might unite her party behind her. The only chance of this being a success is that a form of words are issued by the two sides which attempt to pacify the Brexit hardliners. But with no authority, and trust in the UK as a partner replaced by exasperation on the EU side, there seems to be almost no chance this will come to anything. The Brexit nightmare before Christmas will continue into the New Year and beyond.