May limps towards demise but successor will inherit same problem

Any proposal May makes to resolve the impasse is tainted by association with her

UK prime minister Theresa May leaves the Houses of Parliament in London. Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

UK prime minister Theresa May leaves the Houses of Parliament in London. Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

 

By the time Theresa May stood at the dispatch box to make the case for her “bold new Brexit offer” on Wednesday, it was already clear the plan was doomed.

The overwhelmingly negative reaction to her speech on Tuesday persuaded even her loyal allies that the Withdrawal Agreement Bill had no chance of passing its second reading next month.

The Bill’s promise of votes on a customs union and a second referendum alarmed Conservative Brexiteers but failed to persuade Labour MPs to support it. And the DUP dismissed the Bill’s assurances on seeking alternative arrangements for the Border and guaranteeing no new barriers between Northern Ireland and Great Britain if the backstop were triggered.

Conservative advocates of a no-deal Brexit have long viewed May as an obstacle in their way. Now those in favour of leaving the EU with a deal have concluded that the prime minister is an impediment to winning a majority for any deal.

When ministers read the draft text of the Bill on Wednesday ahead of its planned publication on Friday, some were surprised by the wording of a promise not to ratify it before MPs voted on whether to have a second referendum. They complained privately that the commitment went further than their discussion at cabinet the previous day implied.

Drained of authority and trust, the prime minister’s commitments now count for nothing at Westminster, as the swift rejection of her proposals from all sides demonstrated. Worse than that, any proposal to resolve the impasse over Brexit appears to be tainted by association with her.

Pulling Bill

Despite her insistence in the Commons on Wednesday that she will bring the Withdrawal Agreement Bill back for a vote in early June, it is only by pulling the Bill that the prime minister can leave it with any chance of success in the future. Pulling the Bill means accelerating her own resignation, which she is now likely to announce after a meeting on Friday with 1922 Committee chairman Graham Brady.

Some British political commentators believe May’s Brexit deal will die with her premiership, but her successor will inherit the same problem as she did in 2016.

“The challenge of taking Brexit from the simplicity of the choice on the ballot paper to the complexity of resetting the country’s relationship with 27 of its nearest neighbours was always going to be huge,” May said in her speech on Tuesday.

Whoever succeeds May will have just a few months before the October 31st deadline to make the choice between no deal, no Brexit and leaving the EU with a deal. And if Britain wants to leave with a deal, the only one available is the withdrawal agreement May negotiated last November, which the EU says it will not reopen, renegotiate or modify in any way.

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