Analysis: Humiliated May is now playing for time – will opponents give her it?

Ben Wray

CommonSpace examines the state of Brexit play after Theresa May pulled Tuesday’s [11 December] meaningful vote.

THERESA MAY came to the House of Commons today to call off the meaningful vote – because she didn’t have the votes.

The pound fell to its lowest level in 18 months as the prime minister spoke, saying she accepted her proposal “would not pass the House”, and that she would therefore go back to EU leaders in search of “further reassurances”.

Amid the vague waffle, the most significant line of May’s was a warning posed as a question: “Does this House want to deliver Brexit?”

READ MORE – Analysis: The Hotel California Brexit – What Yanis Varoufakis knows about how the EU trapped May

The prime minister has one card left to play to bring Brexiteers on board – the clock. Number 10 has refused to say when the vote would be rearranged to, and the noises are that it is likely to be pushed past the new year, as a decisive deadline on the horizon is 21 January.

Why does 21 January matter? Because this is the date, ITV political editor Robert Peston has explained, that “if there is no agreed deal, she is obliged to present a plan to parliament about what on earth she does next.” The EU Withdrawal Bill made this a legal requirement on the prime minister.

So what May is likely to do is to get some warm words from EU leaders to offer “reassurance” to MPs, without any change to the substance of the deal, and then leave it so late that she reduces down the options to her deal, No Deal or No Brexit.

This tactic would fit with how the EU has approached negotiations with, for example, the Greek Government, where they threatened to turn off the liquidity tap from the European Central Bank by a specific date if they didn’t sign on the dotted line. Whether tacitly or otherwise, both Brussels and May have an interest in running down the clock.

So where does that leave opponents to May’s deal? For the Brexiteers, this is do or die. Either they get her to remove the Deal quickly, or they are going to be out manouvered by the prime minister, and may have to make a humiliating climb down by 21 January. The problem is they are weak – they can’t reach out across the House for support, don’t command a majority of Tory MPs and don’t have one leader to unify around. It doesn’t look like they have a plan or the numbers.

For Remainers, the key is to get a change of government. With no change of government, there’s no chance of a People’s Vote (and inevitable postponement of the Brexit process which would accompany such a vote). That’s why Lib Dems, Plaid Cymru and the SNP are all pressing Corbyn to table a no confidence vote in the Prime Minister, though as Stephen Bush from New Statesman has pointed out, they could also table this themselves. But if 21 January comes around and May still can’t get a deal through, then the prospects of Brexit being called off or delayed rise significantly, as no one really believes the prime minister will take the UK into a No Deal scenario (though her replacement could).

The SNP leadership is now firmly in the People’s Vote camp, focusing their demands on a second EU referendum rather than on independence. There has also been a noticeable shift in emphasis from Ian Blackford and Nicola Sturgeon – no longer are they talking about the Single Market and Customs Union membership, their focus is on a People’s Vote and stopping Brexit. They clearly sense Brexit may be on its last legs, but shelving the question of independence (not rhetorically, but in all practical terms) at a moment of such acute crisis for the UK state may come back to haunt them.

Jeremy Corbyn may well decide that the time is now to pull the trigger on a no confidence vote, and there is talk of discussions between Corbyn and Sturgeon on this, but he may also seek to see what happens in the Tory ranks in coming days and weeks, and watch the prime minister squirm a little longer. The Labour leadership now have a somewhat confusing position – if there was a General Election tomorrow they would stand on a ticket of renegotiating Brexit, and if the renegotiation didn’t go too well call a People’s Vote and campaign to Remain. It’s not exactly a strong negotiating hand to take to Brussels. A report from Business Insider on Sunday [9 December] said internal polling and focus groups have made the Labour leadership very nervous about a People’s Vote, as many of the voters they need to win in a General Election don’t want it. So sitting tight, maintaining their current creative ambiguity and not doing anything that would leave them with the Brexit ball in their hand may be the most politically desirable option at the moment, though is hardly leadership.

READ MORE – Interview: Law expert on the ‘blunt’ truth of May’s Brexit deal legal advice

Finally, we have the DUP. It’s ironic that it’s the party of unadulterated British nationalism that may well sink Brexit because it’s not British nationalist enough. DUP Westminister leader Nigel Dodds said to the prime minister in the Commons: “What the Prime Minister says today simply isn’t credible…Does she not get it by now that the Withdrawal Agreement, legally binding text, isn’t acceptable to this House?”

The legal advice, which shows that there would be a regulatory barrier down the Irish sea between Northern Ireland and the UK, will only have cemented the DUP’s opposition. It’s increasingly difficult to see what May can do which could plausibly change their mind. But the DUP are playing with fire, because a Corbyn Labour Government is going to be less interested in their concerns than May is. So while they don’t want May’s deal, they won’t vote against May in a no confidence vote in the House of Commons.

The opposition is, for different reasons, stuck. The prime minister is stuck. But time appears to be on her side, not the oppositions. It’s still too early to rule the humiliated prime minister and her Deal out yet.

Picture courtesy of Stortinget