Why May’s Brexit Deal Failed – And What Happens Next

PM Theresa May
PM Theresa May

It is difficult not to feel a tinge of sympathy for the hoarse-voiced Theresa May as her deal fell to a second crushing defeat by a margin of 149 votes. However, it is worth remembering the errors which led the Prime Minister to this position and which have put Britain on the brink of a no-deal exit from the European Union.

Calling Article 50 Early

The decision to trigger Article 50, which sets the clock running on a country’s exit from the EU, is a decision which rests purely with that country. It would have been possible to call new general elections or conduct extensive informal negotiations with opposition parties and foreign leaders before beginning the 2-year long dash to the finish line. May instead chose to start the process quickly, hoping to appease hotheads in her own party. This was an unnecessary error which has only made the British government’s job more difficult.

The General Election

On paper, the election could have been a good idea. May intended to win a larger majority, which would allow her to stave off attacks from both the left and right, aiming for a compromise position without having to rely too much on other parties. But, as discussed above, this could have been called before triggering article 50 and wasting precious negotiating time. It was also a disastrously run campaign which resulted in the Conservatives losing their majority and being forced to rely on Northern Ireland’s right-wing DUP. As well as being viewed with extreme wariness elsewhere in the UK, the DUP’s hardline position on the Irish border has contributed to the primary stumbling block to passing May’s deal.

Personal Management

May has alienated many within her own Cabinet and party with the abrasive personal style and her stubbornness, to say nothing of her relationships with politicians across the political divide. This has seen Cabinet members willing to defy her from the left and the right of her party, while she is reviled by many Eurosceptic backbenchers. Her attempts to bring in high profile Brexit backers like Boris Johnson and David Davis backfired after they quit, while their incompetence in their respective posts did nothing to help with the negotiations. With a slim majority and no deep pool of loyal MPs to call on, May has been unable to fire bungling ministers like Chris Grayling or Gavin Williamson, who have both made a number of deeply embarrassing and costly gaffes.

Labours’ Jeremy Corbyn faces similar problems with splints among his own MPs. However, he at least has a popular mandate from the Labour membership and an independent base of support, which has afforded him some measure of security. May, on the other hand, has not won a competitive leadership election after she stood unopposed. While likeability is not always as important as it is made out to be, May’s own failures of interpersonal management have not helped her cause.

Unrealistic Red Lines

May set out a series of red lines which were always going to be a struggle to meet. This largely reflects her interpretation of the referendum result as being based around ending freedom of movement of EU nationals. While it is debatable as to whether this is what people actually voted on (this problem of interpretation shows the madness of referenda on such issues), she chose to make it the main British goal. As such, it guaranteed that Britain would leave the single market and customs union because the EU would never allow Britain to maintain freedom of goods, capital and services without allowing freedom of movement for workers. This created two intractable problems. Firstly, it ran headlong into the Good Friday Agreement, as it would risk creating a hard border between EU member state of The Republic of Ireland and the UK’s Northern Ireland. The EU would accept no damage to the integrity of the Single Market while the DUP and Brexit hardliners in May’s party would accept damage to the internal integrity of the union between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. The so-called “Irish backstop” solution pleased no one.

A second problem is that May’s position on membership of the customs union, or a so-called soft Brexit, made reaching across the aisle to Corbyn’s Labour party impossible. The British opposition loves nothing better than inflicting humiliating defeats on the government of the day, so the possibility of a real bipartisan compromise was always poor. Still, by refusing to move towards this position May ensured that she was reliant on the Eurosceptic right of her party, always a difficult position for a Tory Prime Minister.

Misunderstanding the EU

Britain has cycled through three Brexit Secretaries and two utterly buffoonish Foreign Secretaries during the negotiations. None have appeared to have a firm grasp of EU law or its internal politics, and the same can be said of May. Various threats, such as the removal of security cooperation, have been dangled in front of the EU and then abandoned when their pointlessness became clear. The phantom pain of empire has ensured a never-ending stream of blustering, aristocratic blowhards bleating from the Tory benches and Whitehall dining rooms about British resolve and “Empire 2.0”, but that fact is that Britain’s size and economic clout will not change the EU’s own red lines. While the UK might be bigger and more powerful than a country like Ireland, for the EU it is more important that process is seen to be followed, that solidarity is displayed with the smaller nations and that its own institutions and markets are protected. The EU has been unified in its approach, and the UK’s attempts to wring a special deal out of the Franco-German alliance was always going to fail.

What happens next?

There will be a free vote today (March 13th) on whether to leave without a deal on March 29. This will certainly not pass, as almost no one wants a no deal Brexit, including May. There will then be a vote tomorrow (March 14) on whether to request a three-month extension to Article 50, meaning the UK would push back the no deal cliff edge to June 29. The EU 27 will almost certainly accept this as they are also uneasy about the consequences of a messy no deal exit. However, they have stated that they expect there to be a reason for the extension, not just another attempt at the same doomed negotiations which Junker has said is off the table anyway. This could be a wholesale change of government position, involving a soft Brexit which the Labour party could support. More likely is either a general election or a second referendum. A second referendum is unpopular in Parliament. However, a general election would likely be a pointless waste of time if it returns a similarly divided Parliament, meaning that we could end up at the same impasse. Even if the election returned a clear majority for one party, that new government would still have to deal with its own internal splits. A people’s vote pitting May’s deal against remaining in the EU would then be the most direct way of breaking the deadlock, despite the hesitance of MPs to go down this route. The way forward for both May and the country will be much clearer by Friday.

Image Credit: Number 10 via Flicker and it 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.


About the authors

Daniel Odin Shaw is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Glasgow, focusing primarily on non-state actors and conflict resolution as well as extremist political movements. He has been published in Ms. Magazine Online, The Monthly Review and Global Politics.co.uk. He tweets at @DanielOdinShaw.

Claire Elliott is an economic policy researcher working in a Glasgow, Scotland based think-tank. She holds a Masters in Political Science from the Central European University and has previously written for Global Politics.co.uk. She tweets at @claireell.