The absurd saga of British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal may reach yet another anticlimax, according to one cabinet minister in an interview with the Independent. Despite the tremendous buildup to the impending mid-January vote on her deal (already a delay from that vote’s original date in December), the cabinet minister said that even in the unlikely event that May’s proposal passes Parliament, there is still too little time until the March 29 deadline to push through other necessary pieces of legislation for the withdrawal.
“It will be difficult to pass the legislation by the end of March, even if the deal goes through,” said the cabinet minister, who declined to be named in the interview. “But no-one is going to object if we need a couple more weeks.”
Indeed, a couple more weeks would be quite little compared to the slough it has been so far. Months after returning from Brussels with — as EU officials made clear in the aftermath of negotiations — the “best” deal they would offer her, May has yet to win the support of her own party, much less main opposition Labor party. “This is the deal, this is the deal,” said European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker after negotiations were complete. Juncker, at the time, insisted that May’s opponents at home should accept what they were getting from the EU, or else prepare for a no-deal Brexit. The deal itself passed Brussels without any opposition, despite the extended lamentations of the politicians there unhappy to watch Britain depart from the union.
The mere possibility of a delay, however, means that the Brexit debate may in fact not be over by the March deadline, when at the very least it was believed that the British public would know what lay ahead. The widespread uncertainty as to what the country’s trade rules, for example, will be in the coming months has taken a noticeable toll on the British economy. A no-deal Brexit is widely considered to be a worst-case scenario, with almost certain across-the-board economic impact.
In an interview with the Evening Standard, another anonymous cabinet minister confirmed that the backlog of follow-up legislation dependent on the deal’s passage would almost definitely cause a delay in the actual date of departure. “The legislative timetable is now very, very tight indeed,” the minister said. “Certainly if there was defeat on Tuesday [the expected day of the vote] and it took some time before it got resolved, it’s hard to see how we can get all the legislation through by March 29.”
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt also said that a no-deal Brexit would most likely be blocked by Parliament should May’s proposal fail next week. He warned that a case of “Brexit paralysis” was on the horizon, although it’s hard to see how the situation could become any more paralyzed than it already is.
What exactly the alternative would be, however, is hard to say. There has been speculation that a group of Cabinet ministers has been developing a Plan B to attract the support of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labor Party, which would create an unlikely alliance indeed. At this point, however, it certainly seems just as plausible that opponents of Brexit will sign on to May’s compromise with the EU as it does that the hardliner Brexiteers in the prime minister’s own party will agree to what they derisively refer to as a “soft” Brexit.
Among European officials, who as mentioned above were determined to drawn a hard line in the sand on further negotiations after May left Brussels with her proposal, there have been recent efforts to assist the British prime minister in pushing her unpopular Brexit plan. Juncker, while still insisting that there will be no renegotiations of the plan, has spoken out in recent days in support of May.
“I do not like the prospect of a no deal, which would be a disaster, I think, for our British friends and for the continent of Europeans,” he said. “And every effort needs to be made between now and Tuesday afternoon perhaps to ensure that this important issue can be resolved satisfactorily.”
The nature of these efforts, however, remains unclear. Juncker said he was “in constant touch” with May’s office and was looking into offering “clarification” that could assist the prime minister in convincing members of Parliament of the deal’s favorability. “But that’s all we are discussing with Downing Street, what these clarifications might amount to,” he said. “That should not be confused with a renegotiation with regards to the backstop.” Juncker went on to say that he did not want to comment further on the content of his conversations with May and her associates. A letter from his office is expected to arrive next week at May’s.
The question of the Irish backstop — of how to put up trade barriers between Britain and the European Union without a “hard border” between Ireland and Northern Ireland — has proven to be the most difficult and controversial part of the deal-making process. Not even the most ferocious Brexiteers have suggested that a hard border would be possible on the Irish island, an idea that is considered impossible given the threat of a return to Troubles-era violence. When, in November, May reported from Brussels that the deal was “95 percent complete,” the seemingly impossible problem of the Irish backstop appears to encompassed most of that last five percent. Despite widespread opposition to her plan’s non-solution, which would essentially leave things as they are pending further negotiation, neither her supporters nor her opponents have managed to produce a politically viable alternative.
In the run-up to next week’s vote, lawmakers passed an amendment requiring the government ministers to return within three days of a “no” vote on the deal with a different solution. After months of negotiations to produce the current deal, however, it remains unclear what possible difference three days could make in the current stalemate. It could, however, open the door to members of Parliament looking to make their own proposals, although none have so far been outlined in public. The last option in all of this is, of course, a second referendum. At this point in the endless crisis for Britain, anything is possible.