May’s exit plan may be scuppered by failure to pass Brexit deal
Despite moves by Brexiteers, the government doesn’t appear to have the numbers
British prime minister Theresa May leaving the Houses of Parliament in London on Wednesday evening. Photograph: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA
She may not have set a specific date for her departure but Theresa May left MPs at the 1922 Committee meeting on Wednesday evening in no doubt that she will trigger a leadership election before the summer.
What she said was that she would not be the prime minister to lead the next phase of Brexit negotiations with the EU but the clear message was that she would start the succession process around the time of Britain’s new withdrawal date of May 22nd.
This would allow time for a leadership election, including a selection process by MPs to identify two candidates, hustings and a final vote by the party membership to take place during the summer. The new leader would be in place in time for the party conference in the autumn and to lead the next phase of Brexit negotiations with a new European Commission, probably in November.
These plans are contingent, however, on the prime minister’s Brexit deal winning parliamentary approval. On Wednesday, Commons speaker John Bercow made that challenge more difficult, telling the government that he would not allow it to bring the same deal back for another vote using a procedural vote to suspend a standing order.
The speaker’s statement came as the Commons overturned more than a century of procedure by allowing MPs to take control of the parliamentary timetable to hold a series of indicative votes on Brexit.
The government is still hoping to put the deal to a vote on Friday, so that if it passes, the EU’s article 50 extension until May 22nd follows automatically. But despite announcements by some high-profile Brexiteers including Boris Johnson that they are ready to back the deal, the prime minister still doesn’t have the numbers.
Jacob Rees-Mogg said on Wednesday night that if the DUP backs the deal or even abstains in the vote, he will support it too. And Downing Street sees the DUP’s support as crucial to unlocking the votes of many more Conservative Brexiteers.
The trouble for the prime minister is that the DUP view things precisely the other way around and they are unwilling to support a deal they dislike without any evidence that she has persuaded enough of her own backbenchers to do the same.
On Wednesday night the DUP made it clear that an agreement was not yet in reach. The party needs a package of measures, including legislation guaranteeing that any EU regulations the backstop obliges Northern Ireland to follow will be adopted by the entire UK, to reassure its voters that the Brexit deal will not undermine the North’s position in the UK.
Even with such assurances, the deal will be difficult for the DUP to defend after months spent condemning it. Backing the deal only to see it rejected would be the worst possible outcome for the party.