LONDON CORRESPONDENT: Britain’s parliament will decide on 11 December whether to approve the deal for leaving the European Union negotiated between the EU leadership and the British government. Most people in the UK and the parliament – with the exception of hapless Prime Minister Theresa May and her band of loyalists – seem to think it’s a pretty bad deal.
Brexiteers hate it because it’s not actually Brexit – it would tie Britain to the EU in ‘temporary’ arrangements which look remarkably durable and which the EU has little incentive to change (see Charles Moore in the Daily Telegraph for a good explanation of this).
Remainers see not a clever compromise based on their premises, but proof incarnate of the folly of the entire Brexit project.
Paradoxically, this mutual loathing gives the deal a chance of acceptance and even the possibility that it may endure for a lengthy period, while Britain tries to settle the ferocious internal disagreements which led to this pass.
Nonetheless, the deal looks likely to fail at its first vote – the Labour opposition and a big chunk of Conservative government MPs say they will vote against. This is positioning for more lobbying and brinksmanship, with at least three broad strategies in play.
- Theresa May (assuming her heart is still in the game after the dreadful pounding she is taking) can point out that if her plan is not accepted, Britain will leave the EU completely and messily on 29 March 2019. Aided by some cosmetic concessions from Europe and some tactical delays, she will aim to get enough Labour MPs (perhaps even with the tacit backing of the leadership) to carry her over the line.
- The leadership of the opposition Labour party, however, want to become the government and putting their fingerprints on a bad deal doesn’t help. Their incentives are therefore to call for a delay, while an election and/or a referendum is held. Throwing the issue back to a divided electorate avoids making a commitment which might divide the parliamentary party. Some of them hope that, well managed, they might even be able to reverse the Brexit decision.
- But the danger in Labour party brinksmanship is that it forces the Conservative party to choose between two extremes: a no-deal Brexit or a Labour government with little commitment to the whole enterprise. Again, the outcome of this choice is by no means certain. The number of pro-EU Conservative party MPs is tiny but potentially enough to bring their own Government down. Perhaps more probable is that the no-deal faction of the Conservative party gains the ascendancy they seek and lead Britain towards a clear departure.
However, none of these outcomes would deal with the fundamental issue: the division of Britain into two equally-sized factions – one viscerally opposed to the UK’s subordination to the EU (strengthened, if anything, by the EU’s cynical negotiating); the other committed to a close and intricate relationship.
A generous divorce between Britain and EU might have provided common ground but the EU ruled this out. The fault-line will continue to dominate British politics – and reverberate in European politics – for a while yet.