May's Mounting Workload: From Brexit Deal to Courting Opposition
(Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Theresa May has a pile of work on her desk.
Having put the Conservative Party conference behind her -- and dispelled any imminent threat to her leadership -- May’s main task is happening behind the scenes after her Brexit blueprint didn’t get the positive feedback she hoped for at the last summit of European leaders.
She has very little time to turn things around if a deal is to get done by November, and she’s in a rush to get it through a Parliament where she has no majority and is reliant on Northern Irish lawmakers.
This week, European Union negotiators are expecting more compromises from the U.K. in round-the-clock discussions on how to avoid the need for police and customs checks on the border between the U.K. and Ireland.
More details on this will emerge. In the meantime, the Democratic Unionist Party propping up May doesn’t like what it’s hearing about her solution to avoid a hard border, and has powerfully evoked its “blood red line.”
The Republic of Ireland, too, has a lot riding on Brexit. There is the issue of trade: The Irish are the fifth-biggest buyer of U.K. goods, and the U.K. is Ireland’s second-biggest export market.
Nor does anyone wants a return to the decades of violence in Northern Ireland between the Protestant majority and the politically marginalized Catholic minority. A truce was reached 20 years ago, and the fact that both the U.K. and Ireland were in the single market and the customs union made borders unnecessary.
There’s been a lot of talk of how to keep that border between mainland Ireland and Northern Ireland frictionless, and what’s become clear is that the answer lies in some of form of unobtrusive checks that all sides -- the Irish, the Northern Irish and Britain -- can live with.
Here things have gotten very technical.
“I expect that it will be a bumpy ride, but I believe it can be done and will be done because the consequences of not doing a deal are really very negative for everybody,” Irish Deputy Prime Minister Simon Coveney said on Sky News’ Sunday “Sophy Ridge” program.
Coveney’s language was positive on a number of fronts, including his comment that the withdrawal deal is 90 percent done and can be completed this month. “I’m not sure Theresa May was humiliated in Salzburg,” Coveney, who is also Ireland’s foreign minster, told Sky.
“May has lot of respect across the EU -- she has a lot of respect in Ireland I can tell you -- because she has faced down many people in the British political system that don’t want to prioritize the issue of Ireland and Northern Ireland,” he said.
Conservatives who want a clean break from the EU have been the most unhappy with how the government has progressively softened their stance ahead of March 2019, when the U.K. is officially meant to go solo.
These hardliners -- a big enough group to trigger a leadership challenge but not big enough to bring May down -- continue to press for an alternative model and downplayed the importance of the border problem.
The Telegraph reported that senior members of the European Research Group, a loose coalition of Tory Brexit hardliners, would support EU officials being stationed at U.K. ports after Brexit and agree to enforce EU rules on goods exported to the bloc as a means to break the impasse in talks.
In the meantime, Labour, the main opposition party, is eager to get to power. It came close to unseating the Tories after May’s 2017 gamble to call an early election backfired.
Since then, Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn’s views on Brexit have come under growing scrutiny as his chances of coming to office grow. His record is one of euro-skepticism, and he’s on more comfortable footing discussing socialism and the perils of Tory austerity.
Yet Labour has slowly but surely softened its Brexit position. The biggest shift was its embrace of a customs union, a position that marks the clearest difference with the Tories. Also, Corbyn has come under increasing pressure to back a second referendum on the EU.
Corbyn insists on keeping all options on the table; May has outright rejected another vote.
What’s clear is that when the time comes for her deal to get voted on, the parliamentary arithmetic is a cause for concern. Her whips -- whose job it is to make sure lawmakers back the government -- have their work cut out for them.
The pro-Brexit camp could find May’s Brexit falls short, while she also needs to try and peel off as many Brexit-cheering Labour lawmakers as she can to squeak by. The Telegraph reported that the government is actively pursuing 25 Labour members to support May’s Brexit plan, known as the Chequers deal.
There is a certain amount of momentum building around giving U.K. voters a second chance to rethink their 2016 decision. Scottish leader Nicola Sturgeon told the BBC’s “Andrew Marr” show that her party would be inclined to throw their weight behind it.
She said the country was heading toward “a blind Brexit, where the House of Commons is asked to effectively rubberstamp the U.K. leaving the EU without anybody having any idea what the future relationship is going to look like.”
“I think that is almost as unacceptable as no deal at all,” she told the BBC. “In those circumstances, sensible MPs of all parties should come together to look at the alternative.”
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.