Theresa May, U.K. prime minister. (Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg)

Theresa the Delayer: May's Secret to Surviving Brexit

(Bloomberg) -- Things can’t go on like this, observed one minister in Theresa May’s government this week. Oh yes they can, replied another.

For a year, British politicians have marveled at the prime minister’s ability to survive crises that looked as though they would destroy her. Now she is offering them a new source of wonder: Her ability to delay.

Less than a year until the U.K. leaves the European Union, the government still can’t agree what to ask for in the exit negotiations. The resignation of a key ally left May outnumbered in her inner Cabinet last week when she proposed going for a close customs relationship with the bloc. Days later, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson described her proposal as “crazy.”

But May, along with pro-EU members of Cabinet, is still fighting for her plan.

The clash prompted the first minister -- speaking privately due to the sensitivity of the matter -- to suggest the government must be near breaking point, arguing that surely if May pushed ahead, someone would have to resign in protest.

The minister’s colleague was more sanguine. May has survived so long by avoiding confrontation and would continue by finding a compromise that enables both sides to declare victory.

At least part of May’s strategy appears to be more procrastination: An inner cabinet meeting was canceled Thursday, and another scheduled on Tuesday is now uncertain. Meanwhile, lawmakers wonder when they’ll get the chance to vote on key pieces of Brexit legislation. Two have been on pause since February, and May has now put her flagship EU withdrawal bill on ice.

You Choose

May’s team believes people in her party pushing her to act more quickly -- either to bring on a clash between the two factions, or decisively pick a side -- haven’t considered the consequences. They should heed what could happen if they lose and no compromise is found, according to the prime minister’s allies, including the potential collapse of Brexit talks, or of the government.

May has now ordered her ministers to take responsibility for resolving the Brexit customs dilemma themselves after they failed to agree last week. She split her “war cabinet” into two working groups to iron out their differences, according to a person familiar with the matter.

No More Deadlines

Both groups include ministers from the rival pro- and anti-Brexit factions of the Cabinet. But the most hardline campaigners on each side -- Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond -- are not included, and will have to wait for the answers.

“We’re not setting any further deadlines for ourselves,” said Max Blain, May’s spokesman, to reporters in London on Friday. “Both options have merit and we are working through both options and will be discussing them further.”

Debates in the House of Commons on May’s Brexit laws, when they come, are likely to expose her predicament even further -- she’s stuck between a likely majority for a customs union, and the more than 60 lawmakers in her Conservative Party threatening to derail her government if she goes for one.

Other delays are also possible. Both Nick Timothy, May’s former aide, and an ally of Environment Secretary Michael Gove have floated the idea of keeping Britain in the EU’s customs union after the current planned departure in December 2020 to allow more time for the government to implement its preferred customs setup.

The idea was quickly shot down by Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the European Research Group of Conservative lawmakers backing a hard Brexit. “The customs union means we are effectively staying in the European Union,” he told the BBC, adding that staying in it past 2020 would be a “dramatic failure of government policy.” May’s spokesman also rejected the proposal.

That doesn’t mean it won’t happen. By running down the clock, May limits the U.K.’s options. If Britain doesn’t know what customs arrangement it wants, it’s difficult to set up infrastructure, and that makes some kind of customs union -- at least on a temporary basis -- more likely. Senior British officials believe an extended customs transition will be needed.

Pressure

That won’t necessarily please anti-Brexit lawmakers in May’s party either, according to Anand Menon, professor of European politics at King’s College London. The prime minister could use those delays to put them under pressure.

“My assumption has always been that the majority of the legislation is going to be rammed in front of Parliament in November and December, when the clock is running out,” Menon said. That would give May’s opponents “pause for thought” about sabotaging bills if the alternative was Britain leaving the EU without the necessary legislation in place.

Although there are nine Brexit bills in the government’s schedule, Menon said only two would be essential: the withdrawal bill, and a subsequent bill to implement whatever is agreed with the EU. That gives May room to maneuver.

Even the negotiation deadline with the EU could be more flexible than it seems. The bloc’s negotiator, Michel Barnier, has said that so long as the withdrawal agreement is secure, Britain can change its mind about future ties up until the end of 2020.

Delaying to apply pressure would anger her lawmakers, but this is where May’s capacity for long-suffering helps. With the Conservatives divided on Brexit, neither wing of the party is keen to remove her in case they like her replacement even less. Surrounded by critics and undermined by her Cabinet, May stays for as long as she can stand it.

And Theresa May has a lot of patience.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.