Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are entirely the author’s own and are not attributable to Wessex Scene as a whole.
Yet again, a week has gone by billed as the one that will alter the course of British politics for generations without anything substantial really happening.
Since Wednesday, Theresa May and her team have been locked in talks with leading Labour Party figures with the hope of finding a way out of the Brexit mess. Having once branded him unfit for office and a threat to national security, May has since decided that Jeremy Corbyn might just be the salvation that she desperately needs in order to secure Commons backing for her Withdrawal Agreement. But soundings from the private meetings aren’t particularly promising: despite rumours that the Prime Minister’s in the process of formulating a written compromise offer, Labour Party officials have reported that Theresa May has so far been more inclined to reiterate why her deal is the best on offer.
Whilst Chancellor Philip Hammond has asserted that the government don’t have any red lines when negotiating with Labour, and that a second referendum is a ‘perfectly credible’ option, many Conservative MPs have pointed out that many of Corbyn’s demands, including customs union membership and a confirmatory vote, contradict the content of the Conservative Party’s 2017 election manifesto.
Despite increasingly vocal calls from Brexiteers for Britain to leave the EU on World Trade Organisation (WTO) terms on 12th April, the current legal default position, the Prime Minister has been reluctant to do so, having suggested that the choice is a binary one between a deal and no Brexit. This implies that if May is to deliver Brexit, it can only get softer than her deal, a likelihood seemingly inevitable when faced with what European Research Group (ERG) chair and Conservative Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg terms ‘a Remain parliament’.
Until now, May has been able to get through 2019 without having to make any decisive choices, instead opting for the can-kicking alternative. However, in last year’s climate this wasn’t possible: in July 2018 the Prime Minister put forward at her country retreat of Chequers a painstakingly compiled document setting out the terms on which the UK would depart. This was a crunch moment for May – she had finally shown her cards about the kind of Brexit she’d be advocating and her cabinet weren’t happy. Only one day after announcing that she had received her government’s backing for the deal, she lost leading Brexiteers Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, and Brexit Secretary David Davis. This was only the beginning of a slew of resignations.
After seemingly endless delays to meaningful votes, departure dates, and even the process of refilling government positions which has left ministerial positions including for disability rudderless, it appears that this week Theresa May really will have to choose a path, both of which will collapse her cabinet, and perhaps even her entire government as a chaotic result. Of course, there’s a slim possibility that May’s request for a short extension of Article 50 until 30th June will be accepted by other European heads of government when a special council meets again this coming Wednesday. This will buy May some more time to achieve a resolution to what the government’s solicitor general Robert Buckland has termed a ‘constitutional crisis’, and will crucially keep her cabinet, remarkably still containing staunch Leavers and Remainers, temporarily together. Until now, May’s priority seems to have been the short-term stability of the government, demonstrated most poignantly in her pledge to the 1922 backbench committee of Conservative MPs to step down once the Withdrawal Agreement was passed and enforced.
Given that almost nobody in the Commons has expressed much appetite whatsoever for the ironically-named agreement in its current form, the most popular gripe being the Irish backstop, a short extension, for which European leaders will need confirmation of a concrete path forward (namely, the Withdrawal Agreement’s passing), remains the least likely option. This leaves May with two stark, career-defining options.
Assuming that she won’t stomach a revocation of Article 50 considering that the Conservative Party has positioned itself as the deliverer of Brexit, and that talks between the government and opposition amount to nothing, the Prime Minister’s hand will be forced into either endorsing no deal and taking us out of the EU on 12 April, or facing the reality of what EU Council President Donald Tusk has called a ‘flextension’, an extension of Article 50 of up to a year. This will require the UK to take part in European parliamentary elections. Either way, up to half of the cabinet are likely to walk out. May’s business secretary David Gauke has stated that he’ll leave in the event of no deal, and Andrea Leadsom (below) on Marr yesterday all-but confirmed that she couldn’t stay in her post if May endorsed a long extension forcing the UK to take part in EU elections.
Of course, it’s possible that government-opposition talks will result in a cross-party compromise with the Withdrawal Agreement being adapted to include a customs union. EU negotiators have confirmed this could take only 48 hours to amend. The agreement could even include a confirmatory referendum. Alternatively, there’s an even slimmer possibility that the EU approves May’s request for a short extension, buying her time to try to find a solution that has parliament’s support. But even if this option is chosen, there’s no guarantee that there’ll be any progress – EU leaders have already expressed concern that at the end of any short extension, the UK government may simply return to request yet another one, prolonging uncertainty.
There seems political consensus that neither of these two options are likely, and therefore both the EU and UK are preparing for a long extension and no deal. Either one will bring this government to breaking point, and it seems that last week, after almost 3 years of uncertainty, fragility, and plots against the Prime Minister, time is up. Mass resignations are planned within both factions of the cabinet, the most leaky in British history, if their Brexit vision is rejected.
Already, The Guardian is reporting on rumours of a leadership pact between Boris Johnson and Amber Rudd to unite the Leave and Remain wings of the Conservatives when May is ousted. Previously unhappy cabinet ministers have sat on their hands, but after incomparable, arguably unforgivable, prolongation, it seems likely that Theresa May’s government will fall.