May Returns to Brexit Front Line After Surviving Tory Ambush
Theresa May staggers on to Brussels on Thursday to plead for a lifeline after her much-loathed Brexit plans provoked a revolt from her Conservative Party.
May won a confidence vote on Wednesday evening though more than a third of Conservative lawmakers voted to ditch her, leaving her authority badly damaged. In an emotional concession to critics before the ballot, she said she knew deep down she would not be leading them into the next election in 2022.
In a little over three months time, the U.K. will be leaving the European Union with or without an agreement to cushion the blow and so far there are precious few signs that May will be able to persuade Parliament to back the divorce terms she’s negotiated with the EU. The risk of a no-deal Brexit and the economic and political chaos it would bring are growing.
To turn that around she needs concessions on the so-called Northern Ireland backstop, an insurance policy to ensure the border remains open with Ireland even if the U.K. and EU can’t strike a trade deal. Opposition to the backstop motivated many of those who joined the party rebellion -- they say it will split Northern Ireland off from the rest of the country and that is something they can’t countenance.
“A significant number of colleagues did cast a vote against me, and I’ve listened to what they’ve said," May told television cameras outside her 10 Downing Street office after the secret ballot. “When I go to the European Council tomorrow, I will be seeking legal and political assurances that will assuage the concern that Members of Parliament have” on the backstop.
May’s efforts to persuade the EU to make concessions have so far drawn a blank. She met on Tuesday with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and EU presidents Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker. They all gave similar messages: the EU is open to providing assurances, but won’t reopen talks on the substance of the deal, and won’t make the backstop temporary, as the U.K. seeks.
EU leaders are planning to issue a statement at the summit that they hope will offer May some cover when she returns to Parliament. They’ll say the EU will "use its best endeavors to negotiate and conclude expeditiously a subsequent agreement that would replace the backstop," according to a draft obtained by Bloomberg, and they’ll pledge to explore further assurances if needed.
DUP Leader Arlene Foster, for her part, warned that "tinkering around the edges" won’t do. Only "fundamental legal text changes" will suffice, she said.
That leaves the premier caught between an immovable EU and her implacable critics.
And while Wednesday’s victory means she’s safe from a leadership challenge for another year, she now knows that more than a third of Tory lawmakers don’t want her to be prime minister.
One Cabinet minister, who declined to be named, said May’s pledge not to seek a fresh term was a necessary compromise to reassure her critics that she won’t go on and on as leader. Another member of her government said it’s left her critically weakened -- plotting to succeed her will only ramp up, with the questions on everyone’s mind being: when will she go? and who will replace her?
Meanwhile the opposition Labour Party is waiting for the right moment to call for another no-confidence vote, this time in the government. Leader Jeremy Corbyn wants to use that to precipitate a general election which he feels he can win.
“We’ll see what happens” in the prime minister’s negotiations with the EU, Labour Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell told Bloomberg TV on Thursday, adding that he expects May to give a statement to Parliament on Monday. “It is literally a day-by-day assessment over whether or not we’ve got sufficient room to maneuver about the deal itself, and then of course what the logistics are in Parliament on the numbers.”
And pro-European ministers in the government are hatching their own plot to secure a softer Brexit. They’ve urged May to make Parliament vote on a range of options, betting that exposing the divisions will boost the appeal May’s deal, or perhaps even closer ties with Europe.
If May cannot get her exit terms through Parliament, the U.K. will be on course for a no-deal Brexit, risking economic and political upheaval. At that point, the only other option open to the prime minister could be a second referendum.
“It doesn’t matter that she’s won,” said pro-Brexit Tory Marcus Fysh. “She can’t command the DUP and that leads to a vote of confidence in the government, a near-term general election."
“We’re not going to back her deal, so in practice she can’t carry on," he added.
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.