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Brussels turns deaf ear to Brexit gridlock in UK

British Prime Minister Theresa May must now decide on her new strategy to get the exit deal over the line

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Mrs May is now even more politically isolated than before, after not being backed by around one-third of Conservative MPs in Wednesday's vote.

London

THERESA May emerged from the EU Brexit summit on Thursday with no major breakthrough in her negotiations over the UK's exit from the Brussels-based club. In this sense, the last few days of political drama in Westminster and Brussels have only "kicked the can down the road", and the UK remains in Brexit gridlock.

Mrs May's appearance in Brussels on Thursday came as no obvious headway was made in discussions over her pleas for a legally binding assurance that the Brexit backstop over the Irish border will not be an inescapable "trap".

To be sure, new ideas were considered, including looking for a start date for the hoped-for future UK-EU trade relationship post-Brexit, as opposed to seeking an end date for the Irish border guarantee which many UK MPs want to secure so that it is clear that this could not last indefinitely.

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But nothing concrete was, ultimately, agreed. And European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker reconfirmed that there can be no renegotiation of the proposed withdrawal treaty.

Thursday's disappointment for Mrs May comes after she won on Wednesday a UK Conservative leadership confidence vote with 200 of her party's MPs supporting her, while a larger than anticipated 117 dissented. While Wednesday's result allows the prime minister to stay in power, in the immediate term at least, she remains in a politically precarious position with massive Brexit challenges ahead.

To be sure, Wednesday's vote had some good news for Mrs May. The 63 per cent of Conservative MP votes that she won is around the same as the 66 per cent that then-prime minister John Major got in 1995 when he fought a leadership contest.

Mr Major went on to serve around another two years in Downing Street which underlines that, in normal circumstances, Mrs May could survive as prime minister for some time.

In part, this is because there cannot now be another Conservative leadership challenge for 12 months. Yet, Mrs May could still be forced to depart in the first few months of 2019 in what is an enormously difficult Brexit context. She acknowledged this after winning Wednesday's confidence vote in what she said had been a "long and challenging day".

One key reason Mrs May survived on Wednesday is that she pledged to step down before the next general election which is currently scheduled for 2022. In this way, the prime minister won support from some MPs who believe she is an election liability, but feel that she is the best person in coming months to try to get a Brexit withdrawal deal after two years of negotiations.

One possible trigger for her departure, for instance, could be a parliamentary "no-confidence vote", as opposed to the intra-Conservative Party ballot that took place on Wednesday. Here, the official opposition Labour Party is considering its options following support for such a move from other parties, including the Scottish Nationalists.

Following the European Council meeting in Brussels on Thursday, Mrs May has returned to London and must decide on her new strategy to get the withdrawal deal over the line. This follows the postponement of the expected vote in the House of Commons on Tuesday.

As she acknowledged on Monday, if the vote had gone ahead on Tuesday, it would have lost by a "significant margin" probably of between 100 and 200 votes. In these circumstances, the vote will now be postponed till January and it will take a massive political effort to try to get it over the line.

What all of this underlines is that, despite Mrs May's victory on Wednesday, she is, if anything, even more politically isolated than before, after not being backed by around one-third of Conservative MPs.

She has said that the rescheduled vote could be held at any date before Jan 21 which she said was the last date possible under existing legislation. However, some parliamentary authorities argue that the vote could in fact be as late as Mar 28 given the Mar 29 date for the United Kingdom to leave the EU.

The challenge she faces is that she is being assailed from both the political right by those who favour a harder-exit Canada-style deal, and those from the left of her position who either favour a softer Norway-style Brexit or even remaining in the EU.

Fundamentally, the United Kingdom is therefore likely to remain in Brexit gridlock into the New Year period.

  • The writer is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics