British Prime Minister Theresa May has just offered to resign so that something she never wanted in the first place can be accomplished, somewhat less late than originally planned. It’s not quite the sort of heroic self-sacrifice that best-picture nominees are made of, but it may be the only choice she has left.
May told Tory MPs on Wednesday that she would stand down as prime minister if they approved the EU withdrawal agreement that she negotiated with European leaders but that Parliament has already rejected twice by staggering margins. Now that the government has all but taken the prospect of a “no-deal” Brexit off the table, some Tory Brexiteers, including Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the hard-line European Research Group, and former Foreign Minister Boris Johnson, who once called May’s agreement a “suicide vest,” have softened on the deal, preferring it to Brexit not happening at all. May’s resignation pledge sweetens the deal, as many of these hard-liners have lost faith in her leadership and don’t want her at the helm during the next phase of Brexit negotiations.
(What’s that you say? There’s a next phase? Isn’t this over if they agree to May’s deal? LOL, no. Under May’s deal, once Britain leaves the EU, it begins a transition period that will last at least until the end of 2020 but probably longer, during which the current trade relationship between Britain and the EU would remain in place and a future trade relationship would be negotiated. This is going to go on for a while.)
Skeptics noted that May gave no timetable for her resignation, and one Labour Party politician said Tories should ask for her agreement to be written “in blood.” A new leadership contest would likely begin sometime in May, and a new PM could be in place by this summer.
That assumes the deal even passes Parliament this time, which is still far from a sure thing. May’s resignation offer will convince some Conservative skeptics—though it’s unclear how many—but may still not be enough to convince her coalition partners in the Democratic Unionist Party. The Northern Ireland–based party remains deeply opposed to the “Irish backstop” provision in May’s deal, which they fear could create an economic border between their region and the rest of the United Kingdom.*
It’s also not guaranteed that a third vote will even be allowed to happen. The speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, warned again Wednesday that he would not allow another vote on May’s deal unless substantive changes were made to it, citing a procedural convention dating back to 1604.
In the meantime, Parliament will be holding a series of “indicative votes” on amendments proposing alternative Brexit scenarios, ranging from “no deal,” to the Labour Party’s “soft Brexit” plan to keep Britain in a customs union with Europe, to a new public referendum on any Brexit plan chosen. These aren’t binding and would likely come into play only if May still fails to get her deal across the finish line. Hundreds of thousands of protesters marched through London last weekend calling for a “People’s Vote” on whether to keep pursuing Brexit at all.
What it all adds up to is that it’s increasingly unclear when Britain will actually decide on a Brexit plan—the original March 29 deadline is all but dead—or who will be leading the country when it happens.
Correction, March 27, 2019: This column originally misstated that the DUP fears Northern Ireland being separated from the rest of Great Britain. Great Britain refers only to the island that includes England, Scotland, and Wales. The United Kingdom is the country that includes Northern Ireland.