Over the last two years, Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May has insisted that ‘Brexit means Brexit’; that she would negotiate a good deal with the European Union (EU) and that Britain would leave on March 29. The March date was the deadline May herself set when the prime minister and the British parliament triggered Article 50 of the EU treaty to set in motion the two-year withdrawal period for Britain’s exit from the EU, following the June 2016 referendum.
Little over two years ago, May had said ‘no deal would be better than a bad deal’. Claiming that Brexit is an opportunity to make Britain great all over again, the mantra of the prime minister and most Conservative party politicians has always been to ‘take back control’. As the Brexit drama unfolded in British parliament over three days last week, the question now is: who is in control? It’s certainly not the prime minister.
Last Tuesday her withdrawal deal was rejected by 149 votes in the House of Commons, despite May pleading that ‘Brexit could be lost’ if her deal was defeated. It was the second defeat for the prime minister’s withdrawal deal negotiated over nearly two years and several rounds of discussions and negotiations between UK and EU.
Despite legally binding changes to the EU withdrawal deal over the contentious Irish backstop issue to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, May’s deal was rejected after the Attorney General Geoffrey Cox said that the legal risk of the UK being locked in an indefinite backstop with the EU remained ‘unchanged’. Unruffled, May however told MPs after the vote that she remained committed to delivering Brexit.
She has said so earlier on multiple occasions. She has also said more than 80 times that Britain would leave EU by March 29. But the question now is how and when? As the days, then weeks and then months passed with first delays in reaching a deal and then MPs rejecting it twice, that date became less and less realistic.
Forced to relinquish it publicly, the prime minister accepted reluctantly that she will miss the Brexit target she set for herself two years ago. Though technically it is still possible that Britain could leave EU at the end of this month because the law has not changed, politically it is almost entirely out of reach.
A day after May’s withdrawal deal was rejected by the parliament on March 12, MPs voted to reject a no-deal Brexit under any circumstances. Then on March 14, MPs voted to seek to delay Brexit, may be for weeks or may be for months. Now Britain will almost certainly not leave the EU in two weeks, unless EU leaders reject its request and it crashes out with no deal.
Last Thursday, lawmakers also voted against holding a second referendum. This is being seen as a tactical retreat by supporters of the second vote, called the ‘People’s Vote’, which could see the result of the 2016 referendum overturned, hoping instead to push the idea at an opportune time in the tumultuous days ahead.
So, what happens next? May will make a third attempt to get her EU withdrawal deal through parliament this week and if the deal fails again to pass the parliamentary test, Brexit will face the prospects of a lengthy delay, which could perhaps stretch to a year or more.
Two possibilities emerge: if MPs clear May’s deal by March 20 – the day before the EU summit in Brussels – the government has said there could be a short delay until June 30; alternatively, there could be a much-longer delay, which will require the UK to take part in the European Council election in May. This would essentially keep the UK in the economic and political union for a long while, which the hard-line Brexiteers fear and opponents of Brexit would welcome.
However, any length of extension has to be approved by the EU; EU leaders are likely to decide what to do with Britain when they gather in Brussels for a two-day conclave on Thursday. However, EU leaders are also divided over how much leeway Britain should be given.
Given the mess Britain has created for itself, Brexit, as Italian foreign minister Enzo Moavero said, Brexit can be compared to a ‘Hitchcock film’. The irony is that while the nail-biting suspense in Hitchcock’s films ended within two hours, Brexit is taking a torturous long time to get sorted. European Council President Donald Tusk tweeted last Thursday that he would urge EU leaders to support a ‘long extension’ if Britain needed to ‘rethink its Brexit strategy and build a consensus around it’.
Some Conservative party lawmakers like Ken Clarke, who oppose Brexit, view that the British government should ask for the longest possible extension to ‘work out over a proper time the final relationship (with EU)’. Hard-line Brexiteers fear that May’s strategy would either force them to accept her deal or give up on Brexit for good.
Though an amendment, seen as an effort by parliament to take control of Brexit away from May, was defeated by a whisker (312 to 314), it would have however helped parliament hold an ‘indicative vote’ to explore a range of options to determine whether there is a majority for anything. And that elusive majority for something does exist in parliament, provided the prime minister does not press for her deal alone. A compromise deal could possibly be crafted over cross-party support.
Meanwhile, BBC has reported that the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is holding talks with the government to see if a solution could be found allowing its MPs to support the prime minister in a future vote. If DUP supports the government, many think other hard-line Brexiteers could also end up behind the government.
After months of the prime minister refusing to open the Brexit process to MPs, and forcing them to either back her deal or face a no deal, suddenly Brexit is wide open and everything is in a state of flux. Ordinary lawmakers have seized control of Brexit from May.
Now, not only does it look like Brexit will be delayed, but a possible compromise that could emerge is a soft Brexit: may be a common Customs Union or a close link to the EU single market or both. That would be the best compromise the opponents of Brexit could possibly hope for, if a second referendum is not held.
A L I Chougule is an independent senior journalist. Views are personal.