Panic in Westminster

What happens when irresistible Brexit meets an immovable EU? Theresa May will soon find out.

Theresa May in Westminster. Tiocfaidh ár lá 1916 / Flickr.

Outside the Houses of Parliament in London stands a small patch of grass known as College Green, flanked with wooden benches and hire bicycles. Usually, it lies empty.

But the intensity of British politics can be measured by the number of camera crews filming interviews there. Spot five or more cameras, and you can be assured a big news story has broken. This week, the Green was roped off from the general public, tall gazebos sprang up to shield cameras from the rain, and over a hundred politicians, journalists, and technicians barked frantically into microphones and camera lenses as people ran around in the background, herding famous figures from one cluster to the next.

The level of agitation exceeds even that which followed last year’s surprise announcement of the general election. After two years of dithering, Prime Minister Theresa May announced she had reached an agreement with the European Union and the Irish government on how the United Kingdom would leave the European Union. The response was almost univocal fury, from her own party and all opposition parties.

The biggest issue, the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, is the insurmountable problem. May’s solution — to institute a “backstop” that preserves the essentially invisible border by maintaining Northern Ireland’s place in the European single market, and thus treating the North differently to the rest of the UK — has been vociferously condemned by hard Brexiteers on the right of May’s Conservatives, but more crucially, by the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland. When May called her snap election in 2017, Labour under Jeremy Corbyn defied heavy media criticism and ridicule and won far more seats than anticipated, leaving the Conservatives short of a parliamentary majority: May could only rule by forging an agreement with the DUP to back her on votes — an agreement she paid for with a bribe of £1 billion in extra spending for Northern Ireland. The sum now seems wasted, as the DUP refuse to back her 585-page withdrawal document with a parliamentary vote.

Parliament is riven with division over Brexit: there are MPs convinced that a second referendum could stop the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union; Conservative MPs (and a tiny handful of Labour MPs) concerned the proposed Brexit leaves the UK too closely linked to the European Union; those backing May’s fudged plan; and those on the Labour benches convinced that a general election that would likely hand the party a majority is the only way forward to exit the European Union with social welfare and workers’ rights at the heart of any EU withdrawal agreement.

Attempting to find an exit plan to appease all camps was always an impossibility: that May’s proposed route out of Europe has met with so much opposition it can’t pass through the Houses of Parliament is not a surprise but an inevitability. This was always going to be the outcome. May simply had to decide when she would expose herself to a public reputational battering, not whether she was going to do so.

The result is a tense wait as Conservative MPs decide whether to submit letters declaring no confidence in the prime minister. As an antiquated joke of a party, the Conservatives’ rules around leadership are impenetrably obscure: forty-eight letters must be received by Sir Graham Brady, the chair of the 1922 Committee, a parliamentary group of backbench Conservative MPs without cabinet roles. Only Brady knows how many letters have been received, and keeps them secured in a safe; so far, twenty-five MPs have publicly declared their letters have been sent in, though there is no obligation to make a submission public. If the threshold of forty-eight letters is reached, a no-confidence vote in the prime minister is called; if she survives it, she carries on as prime minister and cannot face another vote for twelve months. If she loses, she is forced to resign.

There’s a possibility the threshold will be reached, but May will win the confidence vote. No other Conservative MP wants to take the mantle of leadership at such a toxic time: the frontrunners are power hungry, but also care deeply about how history will remember them — Brexit is likely to taint any leader’s record, whereas May can be left in place as a scapegoat.

So if May survives, and her draft withdrawal agreement fails to pass through Parliament, what then? The European Union and Irish government have been clear they’ve had enough of Britain’s attitude to negotiations and have already given enough. There is no real time to renegotiate another deal before the March 29 exit date, and regardless, no deal is possible that can satisfy enough people to ever see it pass through parliament. Either the UK crashes out of the European Union without a deal and falls back to World Trade Organization rules; asks for an extension to the Article 50 exit period, meaning the exit date is pushed into the future to allow more negotiating time; or a general election is called, since parliament remains in absolute deadlock.

Amid the gazebos, lighting rigs, and protesters, all politicians and commentators echoed the same sentiments: anything could happen, and no one knows what will. But many are gearing up for a general election, as the Conservatives panic that Brexit infighting could see them out of power for a decade.