Theresa May’s so-called “survival” of the vote of no confidence this week, by 200 votes to 117, offered a rare moment of clarity amid the chaos that passes for Britain’s shambolic exit from the EU.
But it’s unclear whether either she or the EU recognized it, or are ready to grasp what it means.
May is sticking to her well-scripted and oft-repeated lines, and so is the EU. Both are heading for the cliff edge of a “no deal” UK exit from the EU that neither side wants or can afford.
The British Prime Minister says she’s delivering on the deal Brits voted for. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker says it’s the best deal on offer – the only deal on offer.
After a late-night press conference following May’s desperate flight to Brussels to plead with EU leaders on Thursday, Juncker was withering. “Our UK friends need to say what they want, rather than asking what we want,” he told reporters.
But the reality is Britons were stalemated even before the vote of no confidence, that’s why May delayed the parliamentary sign-off on Brexit, known as the “meaningful vote.” And that’s why some in her party tried to overthrow her…
The stumbling block is the so-called “insurance deal” or backstop, to keep the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic open, or “frictionless for trade.”
But each reality begets the next, the ensuing vote of no confidence in May revealed a massive one third of her MPs don’t support her Brexit plans – and more than 170 of those who publicly stated they backed her are on the government payroll.
That means Brexit is even more deadlocked than ever. With so much opposition in her own party May’s Brexit lift got heavier, and with that, her political needs from the EU are bigger, despite the rest of the bloc already being unable to deliver.
I say unable to deliver, some would say refuse to deliver.
But here’s another reality getting little attention in the UK, many of the Europe’s leaders this week have offered a sobering reminders for Brits, that the UK voted for Brexit, and while Brits may be be in a painful place, their decision is inflicting much suffering and distraction on the EU.
Ireland’s PM Leo Varadkar whose country will be the EU’s biggest loser in a disorderly Brexit sounded exasperated by the end of the week saying there is “a special obligation on them [May’s government] now to come up with the solutions.”
In short, the deal that May is earnestly and wholeheartedly flogging is dead; one third of her own MPs oppose it in its current form, as do the main opposition Labour Party.
The EU must now know there is nothing they can offer her on the deal in play that can break the logjam in her party, let alone in parliament.
The deal won’t fly
From the outside right now Britain must look broken, hopelessly divided and incapable of agreeing what kind of Brexit it wants.
On the inside, however, that reality has yet to sink in.
Like the stag that’s fatally shot, it keeps running not knowing it is dead.
May’s dash to Brussels for “legal and political reassurances” on the square peg-round hole, Irish backstop border issue is a point in case, politically stillborn and proven by the lack of meaningful help she got.
No one can resuscitate her current Brexit deal, not the EU and not her, not without a major injection of out-of-the-box inspiration, and by all the evidence of the past two years of talking, that’s in no one’s gift to give.
The cosy 24-month negotiating cushion she triggered by pulling the pin on article 50 on March 30, 2017, beginning Britain’s exiting from the EU, has been effectively crushed.
Time until the March 29, 2019 deadline is running out and with it, time for May to realize her deal can’t fly no matter how hard working and well meaning she is.
And that means time to find an alternative is vanishing, leaving a no deal – aka “hard Brexit” as the only game in play. Or a second referendum, with no Brexit at all as one of the options.
Those of a more Machiavellian disposition, and here read a good number of hard-line Brexiteers, it is almost as if May, who voted to remain in the EU during the 2016 Brexit referendum, has been engaged in a years-long filibuster. They believe that at the 11th hour, after scaring all and sundry with a no-deal Brexit, the PM will pull her preferred option out of her diplomatic bag.
For those others more grounded in reality, the whole Brexit mess is deeply worrying. The cost of a hard Brexit will hit some in the EU, particularly Ireland, almost as hard as it hits the UK.
No one in the EU really wants a hard Brexit, yet they have agreed they are powerless to give May what she really needs, huge concessions on the backstop.
The 21 months of Brexit talks so far have failed to reach a solution to this issue, and it’s made all the more galling to the EU that most Brits didn’t think about it when they voted to leave on June 23, 2016.
Reality check now, if you haven’t fixed the border issue you’ve fixed nothing.
So Christmas Day will arrive this year with less than 100 days to sort this ugly impasse, or crash out of the EU with no deal in a hard Brexit.
For a tiny hard core group in May’s party that is good enough, but not for virtually everyone else in parliament.
It’s a prospect that is now causing some EU politicians to say even a bad deal is better than no deal.
And the alternatives…
And enough to prompt Ireland’s PM Varadkar earlier in the week to suggest May could take drastic action: “The option is there to extend article 50,” he said, going as far as to say May could even back out of Brexit altogether. “The option is there to revoke article 50 notification process.”
However, May’s spokesman says don’t expect a “meaningful vote” this side of Christmas – something that shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer has demanded.
So over these coming holidays, you might just give the beleaguered PM time to lift her head out of the rut and eye some alternate options.
A so-called “Norway-plus” deal or even a second referendum might get more of her attention despite her repeated rejection of those options.
If the cold reality is the no-deal Brexit, she’s going to have to come up with something else.
Ring-fenced from leadership challenges, the only silver lining of surviving the vote of no confidence, May has the political space for a U-turn or two.
She’s going to need it because if she doesn’t history may well accord her the unedifying and ill deserved epitaph of failing Britain and Europe.
It’s in her hands to write something better.