Theresa May, U.K. prime minster, arrives at a European Union (EU) leaders summit in Brussels, Belgium. (Photographer: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg)  

Theresa May Postpones Her Moment of Brexit Reckoning

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- If Britain's Parliament were the final arbiter of Brexit, Tuesday night's vote would have been historic. It would have been a crowning achievement for Prime Minister Theresa May: Leavers and Remainers, Conservatives and Labour Party members debated for six hours and voted seven times before a majority finally said what they want to happen.

It wasn't any of that. The European Union has already said “no” – in more languages and ways than is reasonable to count – to the one demand the majority voted in favor of: an alternative to the hated provision of May’s Brexit deal that guarantees an open border in Ireland. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, deputy chief negotiator Sabine Weyand, and French President Emmanuel Macron have all said the so-called backstop is not up for renegotiation.

But May didn’t spend almost two years in talks only to miss one of the EU’s core negotiating pillars. Nor does she believe the EU is going to roll over simply because parliament now has decided it wants cake and to eat it. Not for the first time, May has simply played for time and delayed her moment of reckoning. She has bought her party some breathing room to decide what form of Brexit it wants.

Her hope is that while hardliners claim they are unafraid of a no-deal exit – something parliament voted, symbolically, against on Tuesday – they also understand that it would be folly. The party that has historically stood for pragmatism and business would be punished for a generation if a hard Brexit turned out to be an economic disaster.

And Brexiters also recognize two key dangers in what lies ahead: one, that May might rely on the Labour Party’s support to pass a deal that they dislike even more than the existing one; and, two, that an impasse would mean throwing the issue to the electorate, either through a referendum or an election, with unpredictable consequences.

In this light, Tuesday's vote makes perfect sense. May is able to go to Brussels and ask, one final time, for its last, best offer to make the backstop more palatable. She will not get the wholesale change she is demanding, but she will perhaps get something more than she has so far.

Then, on Feb. 14, parliament will have to vote again – and this time the Brexiters will have to own their decision. A vote against her deal risks either splitting the party or seeing Brexit reversed. There is every likelihood that lawmakers opposed to leaving the EU will again attempt to demand an extension to the Article 50 timetable.

It is, therefore, decision time for hardliners like Jacob Rees-Mogg, Boris Johnson and their allies. They are pulled by two equally beguiling forces. On one hand, there is is ideological purism, which feeds a certain vanity and provides a certain sense of potency. On the other, though, is the pull of tribe and the appeal of unity.

Tuesday's vote was the first time in a long while that the Conservatives have looked united and sure about anything. It was the first day in many where May's own party members gave so many supportive speeches. They may like the feel of that unity, and enough of them may want to find a way to preserve it.

The last time they had that feeling, though, May was standing up at Lancaster House, setting out negotiating stances that turned out to be impossible to deliver. She told her party she would lead them out of the single market and out of the customs union; she told the EU and Ireland she would honor the Good Friday Agreement pledge to keep the Irish border open; she then lost her parliamentary majority and that made her red lines even more complicated.

On Tuesday, her promise was simpler: She will seek to renegotiate the part of the exit treaty Brexiters hate. But when she comes back with less than they want, they will still have to decide between ideological purism and a deal that preserves party unity and secures Brexit.

For now, May has kept her deal just about alive, retained control over the process, and proved that a majority in favor of something can be achieved in parliament. In the circumstances, it’s an achievement of sorts.

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.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.