The worst job in global politics

Published on (Wellington), 5 March 2019

British Prime Minister Theresa May masters the art of political flexibility. Over the past three years, she has held a variety of views on many Brexit issues. There is hardly a position she had not taken only to proclaim the opposite shortly afterwards.

Except one: May was adamant that Britain would leave the European Union at 11pm on 29 March 2019.

At least she was until last week.

Under pressure from her ‘remain’ leading ministers, May finally changed her view on the exit day from the EU. She has now scheduled a sequence of three parliamentary votes for next week.

The outcome is far from certain. As always, it is complicated.

Nothing spooks ‘remain’ supporters than a ‘no deal’ outcome by which Britain would exit the EU without an agreement. However, this scenario had become more likely since Parliament rejected the draft agreement May had negotiated with the EU while the EU kept rejecting calls for renegotiations.

Under these circumstances, ‘no deal’ would have been the default outcome had May insisted on 29 March as the day on which Britain leaves the EU. For this reason, remainers within May’s Conservative Party kept pressuring May to give up on the date. There were reports of mass resignations from the Government and defections of remainers to the newly formed Independent Group of former Labour and Tory MPs.

Had May not given in, she would not only have lost more ministers from her cabinet but potentially also her parliamentary majority. Even for the great survivor of British politics, these blows would have been too much to bear and May would have finally been forced to resign.

May would not be May had she allowed that to happen. Like her or loathe her, she displays a sense of duty which does not allow her to leave the scene in such a shambles. And so she rather budged, again.

The new timetable is as follows. On Tuesday, 12 March the House of Commons will once again have a vote on the Draft Withdrawal Agreement. Yes, this is the precise same document that MPs voted down in mid-January with an overwhelming majority. May would need to find 116 MPs who voted against the agreement in January to support it now. The likelihood of that happening is close to zero, and May knows that.

Therefore, May already announced another vote for Wednesday, 13 March. This time, the House of Commons will be asked to agree to leave the EU without a deal. The outcome of that vote is again predictable. Apart from some hardcore Brexiteers in the Conservative Party, a large majority of MPs will reject the no deal scenario, and May knows that, too.

This is why May has already announced yet another vote, this time for Thursday, 14 March. Having failed to either accept the withdrawal agreement or a ‘no deal’ exit, the House of Commons will be asked to instruct May’s Government to ask the EU for an extension of the deadline. In all likelihood, there will be a majority for that.

It is hard not to feel at least a little sorry for May. Yes, her Brexit negotiations have been shambolic, she never showed an understanding of strategy, and she made grave mistakes in her negotiations with the EU. However, she is also dealing with a Parliament that has so far only been good at telling her what it does not want.

Indeed, after losing a sequence of votes in January, May said as much in the Commons. The least Parliament could do after rejecting the withdrawal agreement and ‘no deal’ would be to allow May to negotiate another solution with the EU.

There remain a few minor problems, though. Even if tasked by the Commons with further talks, it is up to the EU to allow that to happen. And even if Britain gets an extension, that does not mean May would secure any meaningful concessions.

The British Prime Minister finds herself in an unenviable situation. She faces a Parliament that does not let her deliver what the British people voted for in the referendum. She is dealing with a European Commission that will not give her anything her Parliament will accept. And she (nominally) leads a party deeply divided on what it wants.

May cannot win this anymore. But nor could any potential successor, which is why no-one is challenging her for the leadership at this stage. While Britain tumbles towards Brexit, the premiership is the worst job in global politics.

There are no certainties around Brexit at this stage, except for this one. Once Britain has formally left the EU under whatever circumstances, May’s time will be up. She will be driven off the stage, despised by leavers, remainers and everyone in between.

Until then, we can only admire May’s stamina.

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