Theresa May Sends a Brexit Message to Two Sets of Skeptics

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- With the European Union summit in Salzburg this week viewed in the U.K. as a failure for Theresa May's Brexit plan, the U.K. prime minister felt the need to issue a clarifying statement on Friday. In it, May did what she always does in negotiations: She doubled down.

It was a statement for two different audiences. Her message to Europe was simple: We have made a proposal. You can't reject it without giving us a counter proposal. That's how negotiations work. The ball is now in your court.

Her message to her own Conservative Party was different: My plan is the only alternative to leaving the EU without agreement on the terms, which would be bad for the U.K., so I'm going to see it through.

She needs to win both arguments to get to a Brexit divorce deal. If May's party, which meets later this month for its annual conference, loses faith in her negotiating abilities, or in the deal she is trying to strike, then they may decide that the better option is trying to unseat her. Up to now, the hard-line group seeking to do that hasn't had the numbers to do so.

If the EU, which ultimately has more room to negotiate than May, cannot find a way to get a deal, then it will give the hard-liners what they want and more: a leadership crisis, and possibly a bigger political crisis in the U.K., plus economic pain in Ireland and Britain and a long road to piecing together a new working relationship with a major trading partner and ally.

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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