Brexit Brief: Prime Minister on the Defensive After Salzburg Summit Fallout

Posted on 27th September 2018

The Salzburg summit was billed as a chance for Prime Minister Theresa May to gather warm words of support about her Brexit plans from European counterparts in the run-up to a challenging Conservative party conference next week. Instead, May was thrown on to the defensive when EU leaders, led by European Council President Donald Tusk and French President Emmanuel Macron, rejected core elements of her plan as “unworkable,” although both stressed a deal was certainly possible.  May’s predicament was not wholly unpredictable; other EU member states have consistently said they could not accept the proposals. However, the government had hoped that addressing EU leaders directly would break the logjam, which they blame on the Brussels-based European Commission.  They remain hopeful that the reaction is a tactic designed to extract more concessions from the UK — a possibility that should not be discounted.  Nevertheless, May responded defensively, using a rare televised address to demand “respect.”  Critics at home duly capitalised on May’s humiliation in Salzburg, pressuring the prime minister to ditch her proposals in favour of deals either closer or further from EU membership. It also has prompted speculation about the possibility of another snap election to break the deadlock.

Parliamentary arithmetic shifts closer to second vote — or election

“All options are on the table” if the prime minister’s Brexit deal fails to gain parliament’s support, including a second vote, said Leader of the Opposition Jeremy Corbyn in his speech to the Labour Party conference. The party would seek a new general election if Theresa May’s deal doesn’t pass but, failing that, will call for a second vote.  Labour’s leadership is divided on what such a vote would look like, but its Brexit spokesperson said — to a standing ovation — “nobody is ruling out Remain [on the ballot paper].”  May maintains her government through a loose arrangement with 10 Northern Irish MPs, leaving her with a slim majority — but one very vulnerable to rebels joining with the opposition.  And threatened rebellions abound: scores threaten to vote against May’s Brexit deal for being too close, while a former cabinet minister claimed others would vote against the proposals for not being close enough and risking a hard border in Ireland. One potential route out of the impasse, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s offer to support a deal that keeps the UK in the customs union, was today blocked as the Conservative chairman turned down the offer.

No-deal technical notices advise businesses to brace for impact

Amid growing fears that the UK is hurtling towards no deal after the Salzburg summit, the government published a series of ‘technical notices’ outlining how businesses should prepare if the UK leaves the EU without a divorce deal. Some of the documents — including warnings about access to medicines, impact on air travel and credit card charges — cover areas of daily life which could be significantly affected in a no-deal scenario. The opaque language used across the 77 notices ultimately reveals that what government can do in the event of a no deal is inherently limited. It can promise to limit the cost — but there is no pretence that this would be anything other than an exercise in short-term damage control. The government is also speculating how the EU might react. Over the past few weeks, there have been familiar lines from Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab about the EU not cutting off its nose to spite its face. However, since it is unclear what the political atmosphere in the event of a no-deal would be — though, given a no deal would be preceded by the breakdown of negotiations, one can take a guess — no one can really be sure what the working relationship will be like. Only six months remain until the UK is due to leave the EU on 29 March.

Back to document archive