Theresa May, U.K. prime minister, carries a document folder as she leaves number 10 Downing Street in London, U.K. (Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg)

May Survives to Fight Another Day on Brexit - But At What Cost?

(Bloomberg) -- Theresa May dodged yet another bullet, avoiding defeat in Parliament over her flagship Brexit bill -- which now goes onto the statute book -- and ensuring she lives on as prime minister.

The question is what it cost her.

May Survives to Fight Another Day on Brexit - But At What Cost?

The value of her concession to rebel lawmakers in her Conservative Party is in dispute. Dominic Grieve, who had been leading the battle to get Parliament more of a say over the Brexit talks, insisted he’d got what he wanted. “I’m completely comfortable,” he said in an interview after Wednesday’s vote.

Others were unimpressed. Labour lawmaker Ian Murray described it as a “total capitulation” by Grieve and “a waste of everyone’s time.”

What is clear is that the faction of May’s party that would be prepared to leave the European Union without a deal at all was pleased. “The government stood firm today and was able to win the vote comfortably,” Jacob Rees-Mogg told the European Research Group on its WhatsApp forum.

Brexiters have been urging May for months to confront those in her party who want to soften or delay Britain’s departure from the EU. They have argued that the Remainers didn’t have the votes, even with the opposition Labour Party, to defeat her. She’s now likely to face pressure to go even further and reverse some of the compromises she’s made over the last year.

May Survives to Fight Another Day on Brexit - But At What Cost?

Internal Squabble

Amid the furious debates in the British parliament, it’s easy to forget that May’s biggest challenge isn’t negotiating with her own side, it’s getting a deal with the EU. If Brussels deems whatever she asks for unacceptable, she could find herself stuck between what’s on offer and demands from her lawmakers for a “no deal” departure. That’s the worst case scenario for business, which fears the chaos of being in a legal limbo.

It is also possible that, with the bill passed, the Brexiters decide May has outlived her usefulness, and throw her overboard. That could also happen next year after she’s delivered Brexit but before Britain’s future relationship with the EU is fixed.

She’s also likely to have squandered trust with the pro-European Tory faction, after Grieve and his allies thought they’d reached an agreement with May -- only for ministers to change their position at the last minute. Her behavior in the House of Commons on Wednesday won’t have helped. She sat on the front bench rolling her eyes and shaking her head when former Chancellor of the Exchequer Ken Clarke accused her of reneging on the deal.

May Survives to Fight Another Day on Brexit - But At What Cost?

Grieve insisted that his decision to support May this time didn’t mean he would always do so on Brexit, only that he was more interested in outcomes than fireworks.


“The country is mired in a crisis,” he said. “We’ve got to try to manage to get ourselves out of it as best we can. That’s not done by posturing, it’s done by hard work. My purpose at the moment is to try to work with the government to minimize the risks that Brexit poses to my country.”

Grieve has also used up credit of his own, with Labour lawmakers angry that he gave them the impression he’d rebel and then backed down at the last minute. “If they’re not going to rebel today, when are they?” Wes Streeting asked.

The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill was only the first of several that May has to get through Parliament, and whatever Rees-Mogg had to say about the margin of victory, it looked tight at the start of the day and the final tally was extremely close at 319-303.

Conservative whips were sufficiently worried that they canceled the usual agreement for very sick or otherwise incapacitated lawmakers to have their votes counted without having to go through the formal procedure of walking through the parliamentary lobbies. It meant that one visibly ill Labour lawmaker was pushed in a wheelchair to vote while holding a bucket in case she needed to vomit.

That could come back to bite the government in the coming months. Labour whips observed privately that they would remember it the next time their Conservative counterparts came to them asking for a favor. If that sounds obscure, it was the suspension of a similar agreement that led to a Labour government falling in 1979.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.