“Quite frankly a bit of a shambles” was the understated response from one of Theresa May’s coalition partners to the news Monday that the prime minister seeks to delay a vote on her Brexit deal, which had been planned for tomorrow.
The delay reflects May’s acknowledgement that she doesn’t have the votes for the controversial deal she negotiated with Brussels, which would keep Britain in a customs union, at least for a time, with the EU, in order to avoid the imposition of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The deal is opposed not only by the opposition Labour and Scottish National parties but also by her coalition partners, the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party and many hard-line Brexiteer members of her own Conservative Party. Both Labour and the Scottish National Party have suggested that a motion of no confidence in May’s government could be put forward this week.
According to the Guardian, “the vote could take place next week or even be delayed until early January, although this would allow less time for the ensuing Brexit legislation to be passed through parliament before 29 March,” when Britain is due to leave the EU, deal or no. Time is running short, and the delay raises the likelihood of a “no-deal” Brexit in which Britain would revert to trading with Europe under WTO rules, a prospect that experts have warned would have dire consequences for the British economy. The pound fell 0.5 percent against the dollar Monday in response to the news.
The delay will give May some more time to lobby reluctant lawmakers, and she has also suggested that the so-called “Northern Ireland backstop” could be modified.
An EU spokesperson insisted, however, that the deal on the table is “the best and only deal possible” and would not be renegotiated. Given the knottiness of the Irish border problem, it’s not quite clear what an alternative arrangement would even be.
But the important thing to remember in the Calvinball world of Brexit is that no one actually knows what the rules are because no one has ever done this before. The EU has already compromised more than many expected in agreeing to the customs union arrangement. After insisting for months that “Brexit means Brexit,” May also agreed to a much closer future economic relationship between Britain and the EU than was anticipated. Both sides also seem to be making quiet preparations for postponing Brexit past March, after long insisting that the deadline was nonnegotiable.
At the moment, a host of scenarios—including a no-deal Brexit, some alternative compromise on the Irish question, a delayed Brexit, a new “people’s vote” referendum on the deal, and an ouster of May leading to who knows what—all seem entirely plausible.