The Irish Times view on Brexit: enduring fantasies

The contest to succeed Theresa May shows that British illusions persist

A succession of Tory leadership candidates, including  current favourite Boris Johnson, have vowed to go to Brussels to secure a better deal than the withdrawal agreement Theresa May negotiated. Photograph: Andrew Yates

A succession of Tory leadership candidates, including current favourite Boris Johnson, have vowed to go to Brussels to secure a better deal than the withdrawal agreement Theresa May negotiated. Photograph: Andrew Yates

 

The European election results in Britain may have shaken the country’s domestic politics, raising the prospect of a historic realignment in a party system dominated for so long by the Labour-Conservative duopoly. But, contrary to the largely empty claims of most candidates for the Tory leadership, neither the election result nor the imminent change of leadership in Downing Street is likely to change in any material way the stark choices facing the UK as it staggers towards the latest Brexit date of October 31st.

One of the consistent patterns in the Brexit process has been the failure of senior Conservative figures to grasp how little leverage Britain has in an asymmetric negotiation with a vastly more powerful and united bloc of 27 countries that together form the biggest trading area in the world. The contest to succeed Theresa May as party leader and prime minister shows that those illusions persist: a succession of candidates, including the current favourite Boris Johnson, have vowed to go to Brussels to secure a better deal than the withdrawal agreement May negotiated then failed to push through parliament in the closing months of her premiership.

Some have suggested that the rotation of senior figures in Brussels – Council president Donald Tusk and Commission head Jean-Claude-Juncker are due to be replaced while Brexit chief negotiator Michel Barnier is also likely to move from his current role – will change the dynamic and allow London to get a better deal. That’s wishful thinking: successors for Tusk and Juncker are unlikely to be in place until after the summer and possibly very close to the October 31st departure date. In any event, the EU’s negotiators take their lead from the heads of state, and their opposition to reopening the deal remains firm.

Brexiteers believe the threat of a mutually damaging no deal exit – the default, in the absence of agreement on the withdrawal deal by October 31st – gives the EU a big incentive to give ground. It’s a self-destructive fantasy. It’s also to defy the will of the British parliament and society.

If that effort fails, the only alternative option on the table should be a second referendum

The House of Commons has been incapable of finding a definitive position on Brexit, but it has been clear that it opposes a no-deal exit – an idea that was barely aired, let us remember, in the 2015 referendum campaign. The Tories have even less of a mandate for that option since the European election, in which barely a third of the electorate voted for parties endorsing a no-deal and those backing a second referendum out-polled Brexit hardliners.

Whoever the next British prime minister, his or her first task will be to reconcile with reality and convince a majority in the House of Commons to vote for the deal that Theresa May secured. If that effort fails, the only alternative option on the table should be a second referendum.

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