Demonstrators placards as they march during the anti-Brexit People’s Vote march in London, U.K. (Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg)

Ousting Theresa May Won’t Solve Brexit

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- To every complex human problem, there is a solution that is neat, plausible — and wrong. That observation by H.L. Mencken came to mind as rumors resurfaced this week that pro-Brexit Conservatives were plotting to oust their leader, Prime Minister Theresa May, by triggering a no-confidence vote in Parliament.

Getting rid of May might be a neat solution to the problem of Theresa May for those opposed to her leadership. But it wouldn’t solve the problem of Brexit: how to deliver on the 2016 referendum to leave the European Union while minimizing the economic damage.

If there was an argument for a leadership change, it was right after the 2017 election. May ran a disastrous campaign and squandered what looked like an unassailable lead, reviving the electoral hopes of the Labour Party and hobbling her own government as it embarked on Brexit negotiations. Thereafter, it has relied for a parliamentary majority on the tiny Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, which has milked the support for all that it’s worth.

The Tories stuck with May then, however. Brexit supporters reckoned that her weakness would make her more beholden to them, and that there would be plenty of time to change leaders before the next scheduled election in 2022. It didn’t work out that way. The further negotiations with Brussels progressed, the more May became convinced that her original have-cake-and-eat-it formula (that the U.K. could retain most of the benefits of membership in the EU single market while breaking free of its costs and restrictions) wasn’t going to be acceptable to the EU. Instead, she concluded, Britain needed to keep as close to Europe as possible to avoid costly trade frictions.

When she set out plans to do that at the prime minister’s Chequers residence this summer, Brexiters felt betrayed. To avoid creating an internal customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K., May proposed a common rule book for goods so that trade would be frictionless between the U.K. and the EU. But that would limit the U.K.’s room to make future trade deals and set its own regulations. Two senior ministers, David Davis and Boris Johnson, resigned in protest along with a handful of other officials.

There has scarcely been a week since when May’s leadership hasn’t been questioned. Her strong performance at the Conservative Party’s conference earlier this month quieted things, but only for a couple of weeks. Reflecting just how toxic the atmosphere has become, Brexit-supporting newspapers carried anonymous quotations over the weekend from Tory MPs and their allies predicting May’s demise in language violent enough to come straight out of “Call of Duty.”

Ousting the Conservative leader would require 48 no-confidence letters (15 percent of Conservative MPs) to be delivered to the chairman of the 1922 Committee of Conservative lawmakers. Forty-six such letters are now said to have been delivered, but nobody knows for sure except the committee chairman, and he’s not saying. If that threshold is passed, a confidence vote must be put to a secret ballot of all Conservative MPs. If May wins, she should be safe for at least a year. If she loses, the party would hold a leadership contest to replace her, which could take months if highly contested.

So why risk it? Why, given the fact that there are only weeks, or a couple of months at best, left to finalize the Brexit withdrawal agreement, would the Conservatives put the prospect of a deal in jeopardy?

The question practically answers itself: Changing leaders now wouldn’t just increase the likelihood that the U.K. would leave the EU without resolving key issues affecting its economic future, it would practically guarantee that dreaded no-deal Brexit. That helps explain why traders sold U.K. currency Monday morning on fears that May could lose her job this week (the pound recovered some once the crescendo died down, but remains wobbly).

Those calling for May’s removal are coy about this. They know there is no leader they would anoint who would be acceptable to the remain voters in the party. They aren’t looking for consensus. They also know that a new leader would not have much chance of getting a Brexit deal.

The argument is that a new leader would pursue a free-trade agreement along the lines of what the EU has with Canada, even if studies suggest it would be a particularly costly option for the U.K. economy. But that wouldn’t solve the problem of how to keep open the Irish border, and the solution the Brexiters recently put forward will probably be found unworkable.

The Conservative dilemma over May was perfectly captured by the Daily Mail, once a staunch supporter of hard-line Brexiters that has become more pragmatic under new editorial leadership:

Enough is enough. The time is over for griping, self-promotion and peacocking across the political stage by Tory MPs determined to undermine their leader. Don’t these posturing rebels understand they are sabotaging the prime minister at the most crucial point in our history since the Second World War?

The Mail’s central fear isn’t unfounded: that the result of the plotting would be economic chaos, possibly new elections, and even a socialist Labour government.

None of this is to say that May’s Brexit leadership is beyond reproach. While she has occasionally played a tactically astute game, it has lacked any sense of strategic purpose. She started the two-year clock on negotiations without a clear sense of what Britain wanted to achieve. It was never realistic for Britain to expect a deal where it leaves the customs union, guarantees an open Irish border and also prevents any customs or regulatory checks on U.K. territory.

May sought to calm Parliament on Monday with news that a divorce deal is 95 percent complete. Whatever might be agreed for the final 5 percent (that’s the Irish border bit), there will be renewed calls for her to go. Those who want an orderly Brexit have reason to hope that she sticks around a little longer.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Therese Raphael writes editorials on European politics and economics for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

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