Brexit Is Turning Into the Road Trip From Hell
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Theresa May survived a key Brexit showdown with rebels in her own Conservative Party in parliament Tuesday. The apparent compromise frees the prime minister to negotiate a divorce agreement with the European Union. But her threat of walking away without a deal is no longer credible. If she fails in the negotiations, there’s now every chance parliament will force her back to the table.
Brexit is starting to feel like one of those family vacations gone badly wrong. The people decided in 2016 that Britain should head out of the European Union. Not everyone agreed, but the majority rules, so everyone piled into the car headed for independence. Now the trip has already proved longer, bumpier and more expensive than anyone imagined – and even those who voted to go are wondering what got into them. This is not exactly what the brochure promised.
The argument now is over who should be driving. The government is trying to pass legislation, known as the European Union withdrawal bill, which converts existing EU law into U.K. law and replaces the act that made EU law supreme in Britain. The unelected House of Lords proposed 15 amendments to that bill, largely to give parliament more control over the final Brexit outcome. May set out to ensure the defeat of 14 of them. But the key vote was on an amendment that would have given parliament a say in the direction of Brexit if there was no Brexit deal.
Brexiters saw the "meaningful vote" amendment – as it came to be called because it tried to give Britain's elected chamber a real say in Brexit – as a back-door way to stop Brexit. Supporters saw it as a defense of parliament's role in the democratic process, as well as a way to prevent a painful no-deal exit.
Conservative rebels (those who voted to remain in the EU) threatened to vote against the government on the amendment. One, a Tory justice minister, quit over the vote. A leading Conservative rebel, Dominic Grieve, suggested his own amendment as a compromise; it contained a measure that would empower MPs and Lords to instruct the government what to do if no deal were reached.
At the 11th hour, after private discussions outside the chamber between the Tory's chief whip and rebel Conservatives, ministers were told the rebels had agreed to support the government. In exchange, they claimed to have secured a promise that the Commons would still be consulted on any government action in the event that no agreement is reached by Nov. 30, which was the deadline in the original amendment. That is, by the rebels' reckoning, they could still order the government back to the negotiating table or call for a new referendum if May can't do a deal.
Confused? So are most Brits by this point. Even those who negotiated Tuesday's compromise have differing interpretations of what exactly was agreed. "No 10 sources say agreement is for more discussions, with 'likely implication' of a new amendment -- again, that's not what more than a dozen MPs believe the PM told them earlier tonight - three of them present told me the PM even said 'this is a matter of trust'... trouble ahead," tweeted the BBC's political correspondent Laura Kuenssberg.
There is no certainty that May will come away from negotiations with a deal. A whole range of issues governing the relationship with Europe, from the customs arrangement to financial services, trade, aviation, data protection and scientific research, are yet to be decided.
So who's in the driver's seat now? That's hard to say. Theresa May leads a minority government (thanks to a disastrous election pit-stop in 2017). And because her own party is divided, not to mention her own cabinet, there is constant arguing over the road-map and every stop along the way. Other family members who wanted an entirely different destination – rebel Conservatives, the Labour Party, the House of Lords, hard-line Brexiters – keep trying to wrest control of the wheel.
Tuesday's fudge means that May is in place, but not necessarily in control. The rebels didn’t carry through on their threat, but they provided the surest sign yet that parliament, where Brexiters do not have a majority, is prepared to take over if May fails to reach agreement in the months ahead. And that could indeed bring a change of destination.
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.