The Prime Minister looks almost certain to go down to defeat – quite possibly heavy defeat – in the House of Commons next Tuesday. After two years in which her premiership has been almost completely preoccupied with negotiating Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, MPs seem determined to reject her deal. So what should she do?
Theresa May says that the choice now facing the country comes down to three simple options: her deal, no deal or no Brexit at all. She argues that the deal she has struck with the EU, though far from perfect, is not only the best that is available but the only deal available. She claims it honours the result of the referendum by restoring to Britain control of its money, its laws and its borders while making sure there is minimal economic disruption to the country. But there is a condition in the deal that is sticking in the craw of many MPs whose support she needs to get it through: the so-called Irish backstop.
Last December Mrs May was forced to agree that whatever finally emerged as the long-term trading relationship between the United Kingdom and the EU (and this has still to be sorted out) there must be a watertight insurance policy (a ‘backstop’) to ensure that no hard border emerged on the island of Ireland between the Irish Republic (which remains in the EU) and Northern Ireland which, as part of the UK, will leave the EU. The problem is not that anyone (least of all Mrs May) wants such a hard border. Rather it’s the terms of the insurance policy which have brought her to the point where she faces imminent defeat.
To many Brexiteers the terms Mrs May has agreed look like a trap to keep Britain locked into the workings of the EU (without any say on how the rules are made) indefinitely. At the same time, to many unionists (supporters of the union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom) the terms seem to drive a wedge between Northern Ireland and Britain, even to the extent of seeming like a ‘grab’ by the EU of UK territory. The Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, on whom Mrs May depends for her Commons majority, is firmly of the view that this is unacceptable. But opposition to the backstop unites is shared even by Remainers who feel a strong commitment to the Union.
The Prime Minister has tried hard to assuage the fears of these opponents. First she promised that the insurance policy would almost certainly never be needed and that, far from being a dastardly EU plot to entrap Britain, the terms of the insurance policy were as unattractive to the EU as they were to Britain: a long-term trading deal would be agreed that meant the backstop would never be implemented. But this failed to convince them. So she tried a second ploy. This week, when I interviewed her on Today, she offered to give Parliament a role in deciding whether and when the backstop might come into play. But this hasn’t satisfied her critics either. That’s why she faces the prospect of imminent and possibly humiliating defeat.
What should you do if you find yourself hurtling towards a cliff edge? One solution is to stop. That’s the advice she got on Thursday from Sir Graham Brady, the influential chairman of the 1922 committee of backbench Conservative MPs. He said Tuesday’s vote should be delayed ‘for a few days’ so that ‘reassurances’ could be provided that the worst fears about the backstop would not transpire. He seems to have had in mind the meeting of European leaders, including Mrs May, at the end of next week when, faced with the impending rejection of the deal by MPs, the EU might help out with a concession or two. Few, however, think the EU would be prepared to offer anything remotely substantial enough, for the simple reason that they are determined that there should be a watertight insurance policy on the Irish border and the British mustn’t be able to wriggle out of it by their own decision.
So, at least for the moment, Mrs May seems intent on seeking the verdict of the Commons on Tuesday evening. What should she then do if, as seems all but certain, she loses?
In the past, a government that had lost such a major part of its governing programme would have resigned and called an election. And no doubt the Labour opposition will at some point put down a motion of no confidence in the government. But that is unlikely to pass because Tory rebels on the deal, together with the DUP, will rally to the government, defeating the motion. And, under the Fixed-Term Parliament Act, elections can be called mid-term only with the backing of two-thirds of MPs. So the government will have to soldier on.
After defeat on her deal the law requires the Prime Minister to make a statement of her intentions within twenty-one days, though most observers think she’ll have to respond much more quickly than that if she’s to avoid chaos in the financial markets. True to her often-repeated claim that the only options are her deal, no deal or no Brexit, she could simply say that Britain will now leave the EU on 29 March next year with no deal. But in the last week things have become even more complicated for Mrs May.
That’s because the Commons passed a motion proposed by the former Tory attorney-general, Dominic Grieve, giving MPs the right to amend any proposal coming from the government after defeat of the deal. It is as certain as anything can be that MPs will reject by a large margin any idea of Britain leaving the EU without a deal because of the economic and possibly social chaos such an exit is thought to entail. And while an amendment stopping such an exit would have no legal force, everyone agrees that the government could not ignore the views of MPs strongly expressed.
So that just leaves ‘no Brexit’ on Mrs May’s list of options. She could adopt the softer form of this by simply saying that the government had suspended the Article 50 process (i.e. put off the date of exit next March indefinitely). Next Monday the European Court of Justice is expected to rule that Britain has the right unilaterally to take such a decision without the agreement of our EU partners. This would be the ‘playing for time’ option, or perhaps better expressed as the ‘Micawber’ option, the hope that something will just turn up to get everyone out of the hole we are in.
The Prime Minister may conclude, however, that after two years of hard grind negotiations, there’s little chance that anything will turn up so will herself propose another referendum, despite everything she has said about ruling it out ‘in all circumstances’.
This proposal too, of course, would be subject to the Grieve amendment and it’s possible MPs would throw this out as well, leaving no obvious options left on the table. But if MPs did accept that this was the only way through, any outcome would be fraught with difficulties for the Prime Minister.
If the public were to confirm in a second referendum its decision in the first, to leave, we’d be back to square one. Mrs May would still have to negotiate a way of doing so that avoided the current impasse. It is possible by then that more and more people would start to echo the remark of Boris Johnson, the former foreign secretary, who complained of the Irish backstop that the tail was being allowed to wag the dog. Some might start to argue that Northern Ireland was preventing the rest of Great Britain leaving the EU in an orderly and acceptable way. Hadn’t Northern Ireland in any case initially voted to remain in the EU, so shouldn’t they be allowed to do so by seceding from the rest of the UK? This would dispose of any need for a backstop and ease Brexit, but for Mrs May, the leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party, this would be a massive rupture in the union and would probably precipitate the independence of Scotland too.
But should a second referendum lead to a reversal of the original decision, things would hardly be better for her. Many people, including this week her foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, have warned of the possibility of social unrest if those who voted Leave in 2016 felt their democratic choice had been denied them by an ‘elite’ that had conspired to keep Britain in the EU after all. It would also be likely to cause a lasting split in the Conservative Party and, in personal terms, would mark a complete failure of the one thing Theresa May committed herself to doing when she became Prime Minister: delivering Brexit. She would almost certainly feel the need to resign.
But should she resign anyway if she loses on Tuesday? Some will think she should out of honour. Others may think she should out of sympathy: she has tried her best, they will argue, and been thwarted at every turn by her own party, so why shouldn’t she throw in the towel and get her life back?
The Prime Minister may, however, feel it her duty to carry on. Why would any other leader have any better chance of playing the dreadful hand she was dealt, she may think? And didn’t she tell her colleagues after losing the gamble at last year’s election that, having got them into this mess, she would get them out of it?
So what should Mrs May do?