Having survived a party challenge, the British PM should spell out London’s next steps
British Prime Minister Theresa May has survived a trust vote on her Conservative party stewardship. But there is little sign that the bitter infighting within the ruling party will abate. Nor is there any assurance that Parliament will back her government’s controversial Brexit deal with the European Union. The leadership challenge was suddenly triggered by a growing number of Tory rebels who felt emboldened by widespread opposition to the withdrawal agreement that has united Europhiles and Eurosceptics across parties. Their resistance gained momentum when Ms. May, deeply apprehensive about its approval by the Commons, decided to defer a vote on the deal. Following her victory in the party leadership battle, Ms. May hopes to secure more assurances from European leaders that Britain would not be permanently locked into a customs union with the EU. The customs union is the backstop arrangement meant to continue the open border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, a lifeline of the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement. London has sought to sell the backstop as the best possible deal that could protect the U.K.’s territorial integrity. The EU insists the withdrawal agreement cannot be reopened for negotiations. The Remain and Leave camps want legal assurances that the customs union would at best be temporary, given the curbs it would impose regarding trade agreements with third countries.
It is possible that Brussels will adopt a flexible stance, despite its protestations to the contrary, to avert a no-deal scenario on the expiry of the Article 50 deadline on March 29, 2019. Examples of how the dilemma posed by the Danish rejection of the 1991 EU treaty, or Ireland’s ‘No’ to the Lisbon treaty were legally overcome are being cited in relation to the present difficulty with the Irish backstop. Clearly, the EU’s main concern is not to stretch the basic idea that the benefits of membership are limited to insiders. But the U.K. will have to show some flexibility, of deferring to the democratic mandate of the referendum, while recognising the practical imperatives of ceasing a long partnership. In that respect, it would be wishful thinking, to paraphrase former Prime Minister John Major, to want to dispense with the Irish formula that has been written into the withdrawal agreement. Tory rebels should rise above their narrow differences in the national interest and back the final agreement presented to Parliament in January. Else, they risk an extension of the Brexit deadline and even possibly a second referendum on the EU membership issue. The meaning of the 2016 referendum verdict has evolved from implying that a no-deal withdrawal was better than a bad deal to an acceptance that a soft exit is the more realistic option. Now, opinions on a second referendum are being openly voiced. It’s time London decided what it really wants.