Brexit Britain from Abroad: Weakened May Lives to Fight Another Day
The Brexit Circus
Commentators frequently call political fiascoes “circuses,” but rarely does a political class oblige by providing three rings of entertainment at once. Such is the British government’s attempt to leave the European Union.
In the first ring, Prime Minister Theresa May survived a challenge to her government on Tuesday, as the House of Commons batted down amendments to Brexit legislation proposed by Remainers in the House of Lords. But the votes were nail-biters in a way such legislation usually isn’t.
This suggests the issues—parliamentary oversight of a final Brexit deal with Brussels, and what trade deal London should work toward—won’t go away. Mrs. May’s restive Tories were pacified with a promise they’ll be able to vote on a final Brexit. They also were corralled with a reminder that a legislative defeat would topple her government, but one day they may view that as a promise instead of a threat and replace her.
Meanwhile in the second circus ring, negotiations with Brussels are going badly. Mrs. May is seeking a “backstop” deal to manage trade across Northern Ireland’s border if the two sides can’t agree on the future relationship between Britain and the EU as a whole. This matters because the Good Friday Accords of 1997 hinged on frictionless travel and trade between Ireland and Northern Ireland, and imposing a hard border for customs reasons might inflame sectarian passions. Brussels and Dublin want to insure this won’t happen if they can’t strike a final agreement with London in time.
The larger point is that two years after the referendum and with Brexit Day looming next March, Brexiters are struggling to devise legal and politically viable trading plans. That’s exposing them to bruising criticism from Remainers and denting public confidence in Brexit. A plurality in one recent poll thought Brexit would be bad for the economy, and a plurality in another now oppose leaving the EU.
Which brings us to ring three: A trove of emails reported by the London Times over the weekend suggest the Kremlin supported a major funder of the Leave campaign. Businessman Arron Banks, a prominent euroskeptic and main backer of the Leave.EU campaign group, denied untoward cooperation with Russians in parliamentary testimony on Tuesday, and there’s no evidence that Russian influence swayed the referendum. But reports that Mr. Banks wasn’t forthcoming about his Russian contacts could further erode support for Brexit.
This week Parliament has finally started voting on fifteen amendments that the House of Lords had handed down in order to change the EU withdrawal bill. It was crunch time for Theresa May.
In order to heighten the tension some hours before the vote, the europhile undersecretary of state for youth justice, victims, female offenders and offender health, Philip Lee, resigned from his job in order to speak freely against the government's Brexit strategies. Another Tory rebel has outed himself. And he said at least one memorable sentence: "In the future it will be countries with allies that survive." The Brexiteers should have this cut in stone and put it in their front gardens.
In the end Theresa May survived another day by making significant concessions to her parliamentarians. "They bought the rebellion off" was the word in the House. Tory rebels abstained or decided to support her because she promised MPs a "voice in the Brexit process," as Lee called it: "It made resigning worthwhile." And, in the same vein, May's majority delivered on eight of the tabled amendments. The Tories are really the most reluctant rebels and "right or wrong, my government" is simply in their blood.
… But a No Deal Brexit is Off the Table...
The news from London just might be good for Ireland in the medium term.
On the one hand, Theresa May has won out against potential pro-EU rebels, who have turned towards trying to secure a soft Brexit. But on the other hand, those same rebels appear happy that the prime minister will, in the coming months, give the British parliament "a meaningful vote" on the terms of the EU-UK divorce deal which she may bring back from Brussels.
The dividend for Ireland here appears to be a dilution in the credibility of Mrs May's threats to crash the UK out of the EU without a deal - rather than take what she terms a bad deal. So, she just may have to buckle down and try to get a compromise.
And her ultra-Brexit government colleagues will have to face that reality.
The core Brexit problem is what Irish EU Commissioner Phil Hogan calls the "London-to-London dialogue", which remains totally unresolved. In the same vein, replying to Dáil questions on Brexit yesterday, the Taoiseach again conveyed his Government's frustration at the lack of any unity in the British government on this vexed topic.
"It often feels as though the United Kingdom is negotiating with itself more than with us which makes it rather tricky," he said.
… And It is only a Brief Respite
The respite obtained by Ms. May is likely to be short-lived, since a new version of the text of the government will be presented Thursday, before a vote Monday in front of the House of Lords.
Fearing that the bill will eventually deliver a softened Brexit, the Eurosceptic conservatives have called on the leader to remain firm.
Fusing the pro-EU methods, Conservative MP John Redwood said their grievances were actually hiding an "intention to overturn the decision of the British people."
"I think the Prime Minister is in a difficult situation, because if there are two different interpretations of the commitments she made, we will soon realize," said Labor MP Hilary Benn, president of the parliamentary committee on Brexit.
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