LONDON CORRESPONDENT: Readers with a good memory may recall an earlier categorisation of Brexit as an endless negotiation. On Wednesday, it shifted into Britain’s governing Conservative party, when 48 MPs requisitioned a party leadership vote.
The party whips brought this on with remarkable alacrity and by the end of the day, Prime Minister Theresa May was still standing.
Unfortunately for the governing party, this looks like a decision to postpone a decision. The Conservatives are not just the party charged with delivering Brexit: they (or at least their members and voters, if not their MPs) are the party of Brexit. And the plan May brought back from Brussels – with so many commitments and a potentially endless ‘transition’ – does not appear to deliver Brexit.
Indeed it seems to be getting less like Brexit by the day. As the fine print is scrutinised, there are regular revelations of commitments which subordinate important UK interests to EU influence or control. The latest examples are commitments to European defence which appear to conflict with the UK’s commitments to NATO and the anglophone intelligence-sharing partnership, and retaining a wide-ranging power for the European bureaucracy and courts to intervene in UK competition law (for which read: to regulate much UK economic activity).
For the 117 MPs who voted against the PM, the options for the government are brutally simple. Recognise that Brussels will not offer a smooth and clear transition to anything which looks like Brexit (at its simplest, this would mean the two parties interacting like friendly G-20 nations, and trading on WTO terms). That leaves only two choices: go back into the EU (or something like it) or prepare to leave the EU without an agreement (while being willing to negotiate on the way should the EU change its tune).
Paradoxically, only the imminence of a messy departure might be able to change the EU stance.
But some 200 Tory MPs have not reached this sticking point. Some fear committing to a ‘hard’ Brexit will trigger desertions that lead to a Labour government; others hope May might get enough concessions from Brussels to make her deal palatable; a few dare imagine Britain’s returning to the EU fold. All of them must fear that whether the May deal or a ‘hard‘ Brexit prevails, neither will be enough to return them to government, or even to parliament, at the next election.
Meanwhile, the opposition Labour party is hiding its internal divisions behind rejection of May’s plan. Having neither internal cohesion nor credible Brexit policy, it will probably slide into the promise of a new referendum. But it may discover that this is but one more stage in the great negotiation – with the prospect of a referendum at every election – presumably until the UK leaves the EU or the EU breaks up.