Britain, Brexit and May at a Breaking Point?

Protest against Brexit

The future of the United Kingdom’s European departure hangs in the balance. This Monday, Prime Minister Theresa May made her last-ditch attempt to negotiate a deal that finds favor with both the European Union and the British Parliament, a task that has so far proven to allude her. May has failed again, losing the parliamentary vote on her reframed Brexit deal by 391 – 242, a majority of 149.

Make no mistake, the stakes are as high this week as they have ever been since June 2016. Now that May’s re-negotiated deal has failed to pass through the Parliament, the political ramifications have the potential to derail not only her political career but Brexit itself.

To understand the key issues at play as the British Parliament voted on a May-sponsored Brexit deal for the second time, we need to understand what the ‘Irish backstop’ really is. The Irish backstop simply refers to a last-ditch agreement with the European Union that ensures ‘no matter what happens post-Brexit, the two sides will avoid a hard Irish border.’ In other words, as Jen Kirby continues to explain, if negotiating parties fail to come to an agreement about how to avoid a hard Irish border, the UK will remain in a ‘customs arrangement’ with the EU. Importantly, this agreement would only end when both the UK and the EU figure out a method of keeping the Irish border open.

This backstop has been the cause of immense criticism for May from both sides. Brexiteers oppose it because it traps the UK inside a customs agreement with the European Union until the EU decides that agreement is no longer desirable, a contingency that is far from guaranteed. Remainers also find foul with the Irish backstop because it condemns Britain to having to play by the EU’s rules without having a seat at the table themselves.

Fast forward to January 2019, and Theresa May’s deal suffered an immensely damaging defeat in Parliament to the tune of a 230 vote majority.

In a second attempt to get a Brexit agreement past Parliament, Theresa May returned to Britain with a reassurance. Answering Adam Fleming from the BBC this Monday, Theresa May gave an update on ‘legally-binding’ changes that she alleges ought to allay concerns regarding the potentially permanent nature of the Irish backstop:

What we have secured as I said are legally binding changes, which is exactly what Parliament asked us to secure, and what we have secured is very clearly that the backstop cannot be indefinite, cannot become permanent, it is only temporary‘.

This reassurance fell on deaf ears. On Tuesday, The Rt Hon Geoffrey Cox QC MP published a legal opinion that directly contradicts the words uttered by the Prime Minister in Strasbourg the day before. He captures the pessimist’s concerns regarding the ‘legally binding changes’ May achieved with respect to the Irish backstop as follows:

‘…the legal risk remains unchanged that if through no such demonstrable failure of either party, but simply because of intractable differences, that situation does arise, the United Kingdom would have, at least while the fundamental circumstances remained the same, no internationally lawful means of exiting the Protocol’s arrangements, save by agreement.’

This view proved to hold enough weight to halt a Brexit deal in its tracks for a second time in 2019. What, then, are we to expect in the coming days?

Theresa May’s immediate reaction in the House of Commons painted the UK’s next steps in plain sight.

On Wednesday, the UK’s Brexit appetite will be questioned yet again. After failing to secure a deal with the European Union, Parliament will be asked to vote on leaving the European Union without a deal on March 29. Given that both of Theresa May’s deals have fallen short of a standard acceptable for Parliament, it is safe to assume a third resounding rejecting vote will follow. In the likely event that Parliament votes no to a no deal departure, Theresa May will approach the European Union with a request to extend Article 50, thereby extending the deadline for the UK to leave Europe after March 29.

Beyond Thursday, the public can only speculate. The European Union will certainly ask for the reason behind the UK’s wish to extend Article 50, and the UK will have to give an answer, whether that be a second referendum, the eventual revocation of Article 50, or a general election. None of these contingencies paint a bright picture for Theresa May’s future at Westminster.

As per a British government official who recently spoke to Foreign Policy Magazine before Tuesday’s vote, if Theresa May’s deal were to fail, ‘insiders are saying that she will resign as soon as Thursday’.

Image: Brexit Will Break Britain by Colin. This work is available under a Creative Commons License.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.