Brexit Brief: Over to London

Posted on 29th November 2018

Signed, sealed: can it be delivered?

After 17 months of negotiations, it only took EU leaders 38 minutes to rubber stamp the divorce papers. The long awaited agreement was not cause for celebration however. Leaders agreed it may be the best deal possible for both parties, but most importantly, it is the only deal possible. Unfortunately for Theresa May, this doesn’t make a good campaign slogan to sell it at home.

Despite earnest statements of ambition for a trade relationship and a commitment to swift an adequacy assessment for UK-EU data flows before the end of the transition period, the deal provided a Swiss-cheese level of opportunity for those poking holes in it. (Brexit Brief readers should steady themselves for more Swiss Brexit comparisons, particularly in Westminster.)

A Crisis of Confidence – but not for May

After surviving Spain’s eleventh-hour ultimatum over Gibraltar, the deal now faces a greater obstacle: getting it through parliament on 11 December. Roughly a third of Conservative MPs are thought to be ready to vote against the deal. For the next two weeks, May will use every tactic in the book: marathon Q&As in the Commons, a nationwide charm offensive and even a TV debate. At this point, No. 10 is defining success as losing by ‘just’ 100 – and even that looks optimistic.

Most of Westminster is under the assumption that the deal won’t pass on 11 December, plunging Britain into an extraordinary Christmas crisis. In this case, May hopes that with some cosmetic changes she could pass the deal second-time around as MPs stare into the no-deal abyss. It is certainly a hope, as there could well be efforts to force her out if she loses. There certainly seems a crisis of confidence in May’s ability to pass the deal, although these doubts appear not to be shared by the prime minister herself, who soldiers on. Indeed, this resilience has won plaudits even from her harshest critics.

Scrambling for Plan B

A rejected deal will raise the already-high stakes and encourage critics to present previously dismissed alternatives. The opposition may champion a fresh referendum after the meaningful vote. Other MPs will try to bank on the chaos and assemble a cross-party majority for a “soft Brexit” – a Norway-plus model or a Canada-style deal, each backed by 5 ministers. In Downing Street, Theresa May seems increasingly like an army of one. Her political future, the government and it seems the fate of the country rests on whether she can pass the deal. Then there’s the future relationship to negotiate.

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