May’s Big Gamble: Everybody Is Bored of Brexit

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- After more than 18 months of negotiations, Theresa May has come home with a Brexit deal that perfectly represents the fraught 52-48 split in that 2016 vote. The prime minister’s job now isn’t to get people to like the agreement. Nobody does. It’s to convince them it’s better than any available alternative.

Markets were unruffled on Monday — largely because Sunday’s handshake in Brussels was a non-event. The real action will come when Parliament votes on the agreement in December. The outcomes are anything but predictable, but could range from her deal being accepted to the government falling. It’s quite possible that Britain has to inch closer to the edge of the no-deal cliff, and feel real panic, before lawmakers decide that this deal, or some other option, is better.

The crisis May faces is partly of her own making. She reached a deal with Europe without reaching a consensus within her own cabinet and party. She waited too long to tell each side that it couldn’t get what it wanted. Instead, she drew red lines (like control over immigration) that seemed to satisfy Brexiters, while also promising Remainers “frictionless” trade. Both, rightly, see the proposal imposes painful compromises.

Now she finds she doesn’t have a majority for her deal; nor is there a parliamentary majority for any of the other options. The Democratic Unionist Party, the small Northern Irish party which May relies on for her majority in Parliament, opposes the EU agreement and is threatening to withdraw its support. Some of her own members of Parliament are pushing for a plan B. The arithmetic looks almost impossible.

But it’s always unwise to count out May, who has been remarkable in both her resilience and ability to weather challenges up to now. She has time, incumbency and patronage on her side — the December deadline will focus minds, she has her Conservative Party whips to threaten and cajole hold-outs, and has already doled out the knighthood. Her calls to the British people to support the deal were a thinly veiled message to grassroots Conservatives to put pressure on their lawmakers locally.

As she spends the next two weeks trying to sell her vision of Brexit to a wary, and weary, nation, she has a few cards she can try to play. First, she’s counting on the help of those who are bored of Brexit (the BOBs, as they’re now called). Second, she’s counting on her own party to do what it can to stay in power. Finally, she’s betting that none of the alternatives will command a consensus.

The BOB factor shouldn’t be underestimated. Brexit has dominated the national conversation for over two years, crowding out any serious discussion of other issues. The economy has already suffered. May will tell people that the deal returns broad control over borders, money and laws. It will allow the government to focus on improving the National Health Service, schools and policing. She will tell Leavers to take “yes” for an answer, and to allow the country to move on with Brexit.

She’s not wrong to gamble on her own party’s survival instincts either. The Conservative Party is nothing if not skilled at gaining and staying in power. Tory MPs in marginal constituencies, and even those in more secure seats, will be loath to test the electorate’s support in a new vote. May will tell MPs that voting for her deal is the best chance of keeping Labour out of power and refocusing the electorate on key issues of domestic policy.

She will also work to try to dismiss the available alternatives as dead ends. Calls for a second popular vote are growing, though it is unclear what question could be put to the public that would have parliamentary approval (bear in mind that Conservatives are likely to veto a “remain” option and Labour would veto a “no deal” option). Those quietly advocating parking the U.K. in a halfway house — via the European Economic Association — will have an uphill battle. It would mean the continued free movement of labor — opposition to which has been a core reason for the Brexit vote. May’s supporters will point out that the current deal envisages a transition period with free movement that might extend all the way to 2022, but it at least has a defined end date.

The real problem is she’s trying to serve up a deeply flawed compromise to Brexit supporters for whom this isn’t about compromise or economics. It’s theological. For parts of her parliamentary party, this is an existential fight that has been 30 years in the making. Her answer is to go over their heads, to the public and to those lawmakers likely to take a more pragmatic view. If Sunday’s handshake seemed a little anticlimactic, that’s because the real drama lies ahead.

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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