Theresa May had hoped that 11 December 2018 would become a historic day, where her parliament would vote to pass the Withdrawal Agreement, signalling the end of Britain’s participation within the European Union, and cementing her as the Prime Minister who had won the hard-fought battle for the freedom for the British people.
The hard reality, however, is that she has instead fallen short, and that this vote has instead compounded the damage of a disastrous week in which the first-ever government in the nation’s history has been found to be in Contempt of Parliament.
The Withdrawal Agreement vote had a low-chance of success regardless, due to the estimated 423 MPs opposing her deal out of the 650 that sit in the House of Commons, however, it does nothing to alleviate the embattled Prime Minister.
Now, despite the respite many expected, the various factions occupying the political space are now set to pull Britain in every direction, when the country already has very little space to manoeuver.
We can break the key factions that forced the defeat down into a number of groupings based on their public behaviour, and are important in understanding the dangers now facing the country.
On one hand, you have the Hard-Brexiteers led by Jacob-Rees Mogg, who want a no-deal Brexit at all cost, and the negotiated no-deal Brexit faction which includes ex-cabinet Minister Dominic Raab, who believe that it is possible to negotiate a no-deal Brexit to reduce the damage inflicted on the country.
Between these two factions, there is an alarming number of MPs who seem to want this deal to fail regardless and are impossible to please. This can no longer be put down to a lack of knowledge or a lack of information on how Brexit will affect the country; they are simply a group that, despite the best efforts of many, cannot be reasoned with.
While fragmented and spread across multiple groups, Another major faction in parliament is comprised of those who believe that a renegotiated deal is possible. With groups led by MPs such as Jeremy Corbyn, Boris Johnson and Stephen Kinnock, they have almost unilaterally ignored statements that the EU is not willing to renegotiate and have instead opted to use this claim to undermine Theresa May.
Jeremy Corbyn’s group claim that they would be able to negotiate a “new, comprehensive customs union” with the EU, keeping the Irish border open and allowing Britain to have a say in all future European trade deals despite having third-country status. It is also pursuing a ‘jobs-first Brexit’ which would protect the ordinary workers. Unfortunately, this is also one of the unlikely scenarios requiring that the EU divides its indivisible single market.
The other group, led by Boris Johnson and David Davis believe that a ‘Super Canada’ deal would be the best possible deal for Britain, which would allow the UK to opt-in to specific elements of the ‘European Internal Market’ without any of the regulatory commitments. However, as well as being entirely unpalatable to the European Union, these supporters are a minority within Parliament.
The final group within this faction are those pushing for ‘Norway Plus’, also known as membership of the European Free Trade Area (EFTA). This includes MPs such as Stephen Kinnock (Labour) and Nick Boles (Conservatives), this is considered to be the least destructive of the Brexit deals, been also being coined as the “Soft Brexit” option.
The sheer amount number of political incoherencies within the British political arena is alarming, with statements and information being presented by the European Union’s negotiators, experts and politicians being drowned out or ignored in favour of sound-bites and political posturing within the domestic political arena.
The need to look strong domestically has led to an almost forced ignorance of the balance of power between the British state and the European Union, with the constant calls for European concessions leading to Michel Barnier stating that Britain needed to “face the reality” of its political position, and other EU officials decrying Britain’s “fantasy” negotiating strategy.
We have had EU official after EU official clearly saying that this is the only deal that Britain will be offered, aside from possible small changes like rewording segments to make them more palpable on the domestic level. Aside from the current Withdrawal Agreement, the only options on the table are either “No deal or no Brexit at all”. However, Romano Prodi, former European Commission President, recently intervened and claimed that the European Union would renegotiate with Theresa May in the event that the deal was voted down.
Unfortunately, however, the problem with taking this statement at face value as many within Britain have, is that regardless of whose ear he may have due to his prior position, he is not involved in the decision-making process or the negotiations. And with Martin Selmayr, the so-called “Monster of Brussels”, aiming to take over the Brexit negotiations, the British may want to reconsider whether they even want this to happen.
This would, however, be seen as a boon to Jeremy Corbyn and his Labour front bench, who firmly believed that by shutting down a vote on Theresa May’s deal, that they would be able to position themselves to renegotiate the Withdrawal Deal and enact a left-wing “jobs first Brexit”.
Likewise, many within the conservatives will be pleased by Prodi’s intervention, and will be hoping to renegotiate this deal, specifically, the Irish Backstop. Despite being deeply disliked by the European Union, and having been proposed by the British negotiating team, they have rallied against the backstop with their “allies” the Democratic Unionist Party, due to its division of the British union.
If we venture outside of party politics, the various movements clamouring for a second referendum will also feel been bolstered by Prodi’s opinion, believing that this will lead to the extension of Article 50 that they crave and grant them the additional time they to increase the share of MPs who support them from 53 MPs that openly supported it as of November 28.
Treacherous roads ahead
The danger of assuming that he is right and acting upon it is that the European Union may finally decide to play hardball in an attempt to force the British to either finalise their exit from the European Union on the terms set out or re-join the EU.
Britain is in a fraught position, with the self-interests of the Brexit factions pushing MPs to take increasingly selfish and dangerous decisions, with May sitting in the middle of an increasingly dysfunctional and fractured parliament that is unable to command a majority for any option.
Many of the options that are said to be on the table are almost entirely reliant on either an extension to Article 50 or its revocation. While the European Court of Justice ruled that Article 50 can be unilaterally revoked by the United Kingdom on December 10th, people have been far too quick to celebrate this and don’t appear to have questioned whether or not there exists a parliamentary majority to actually do so.
Alongside this, in the unlikely event that the European Union decides that it is willing to return to the negotiations, Britain will find that Europe’s patience has run out and become exasperation, and Michel Barnier will find himself working with an increasingly volatile and uncompromising partner. In fact, Boris Johnson recently repeated a now regular Brexiteer threat that the UK should dishonour its legal liability on the divorce bill until a free trade deal is agreed,
I can’t follow anymore. After two years of negotiations, the Tory government wants to delay the vote. Just keep in mind that we will never let the Irish down. This delay will further aggravate the uncertainty for people & businesses. It’s time they make up their mind! #brexit
— Guy Verhofstadt (@guyverhofstadt) December 10, 2018
The continued isolation of the British political environment, where a majority wilfully ignore the political reality being set out by the EU, will continue to undermine and hamstring the ability of the negotiating team to come back with a good deal, regardless of whether or not the EU chooses to negotiate. And even if they received the perfect deal, would Parliament vote for it?
Regardless, following reports that the December 11 vote on the Withdrawal Agreement had been postponed, the European Commission clearly stated that “This deal is the best and only one possible”.
As renegotiation is unlikely, this leaves a limited number of options available to the British government, with the best-case scenario for Theresa May being a re-wording of the agreement itself that would hopefully make it more palatable to her party and allowing her to win a vote.
She could attempt to force MPs into supporting her deal by deferring the ‘Meaningful Vote’ until the very last minute, forcing MPs to choose between a catastrophic ‘no-deal’ Brexit or her deal. However, it would almost certainly lead to a no-confidence vote if those around her believed that this was what she was doing, and this would likely signal the end of her political career.
Alternatively, with the pressure being increased, Theresa May could choose to move her red lines and negotiate a softer Brexit, in the hopes that this would appeal to a broader range of MPs and bring more Labour MPs on-side, and this is an option that has been discussed and supported by Cabinet Minister Amber Rudd. But this would infuriate those who would see it as a betrayal of Brexit and would shackle the country to the EU.
An unlikely outcome could be Parliament, with its new-found sovereignty having been established yet again, forcing an extension of Article 50, which could even lead to those seeking a Second Referendum being able to finally snatch it from the jaws of defeat.
However, while we can analyse and dissect the daily happenings surrounding Brexit, the only fact available to us right now is that Britain will leave the European Union on the 29th March 2019 at 11:00 pm, with or without a deal; And if Theresa May cannot find a majority for any possibility on the table, then we could very well see our worst fears come to pass and witness the unthinkable.