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COMMENTARY

Brexit negotiations down to the wire for PM May

"UNPREDICTABLE" and "unprecedented" are words increasingly used to describe the "Alice in Wonderland" political times in London.

Only days before Britain is scheduled to leave the EU, the nation stands at a potential historic crossroad.

MPs voted 412-202 Thursday to request a negotiating extension from Brussels. However, Prime Minister Theresa May is planning for a third time to put her UK withdrawal deal to a vote on Tuesday or Wednesday.

Remarkably, Mrs May - after two massive, historic defeats on the defining legislation of her government - has a glimmer of victory this week. In previous eras, she would probably by now have quit as prime minister or have been forced out of office.

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Yet, while the odds are still against her, there are some signs that she could "lose her way" to victory before the EU summit of presidents and prime ministers on Thursday and Friday.

To be sure, Mrs May's premiership is still hanging by threads. But it is nonetheless the case that a critical mass of hardline Brexiteers in her Conservative Party, and possibly the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) too, could now decide to back her withdrawal deal as the least-worst choice given their growing fear that the United Kingdom may never otherwise leave the Brussels-based club.

To grind out a win, Mrs May needs to reverse last week's second historic 432-202 defeat in the House of Commons. A key reason she lost that ballot was because only 43 of the 118 Tory MPs who voted against her deal in January came over to the government's side of the ledger.

There is no path to victory without winning many more of these Brexiteer votes. As part of a potential "grand bargain" with these Eurosceptics, who are increasingly disillusioned with Mrs May, it is even possible that she could offer to stand down as prime minister to get the withdrawal deal over the line.

If she is to win, one leading indicator could well be if the 10 DUP MPs, who prop up her minority government, also fall behind the deal. Just like many hardline Brexiteers in Mrs May's party, the primary reason the DUP has so far not endorsed her withdrawal deal is the so-called Irish backstop.

Over the weekend, there were signs that the government may be making some progress. Not only are some high-profile Conservatives, including former cabinet minister Esther McVey, now supporting the deal, but also the DUP is in "ongoing, significant" discussions with Downing Street.

DEAL EXTENSION?

What many Brexiteers and the DUP are looking for is more political cover to support Mrs May. This includes the possibility that Attorney General Geoffrey Cox could find additional provisions that add to domestic UK law to fortify the perceived safeguards on the Irish backstop.

Crucially, this may also lead him to change his legal advice, again on this issue. What Brexiteers and the DUP want to hear is that the risk has materially reduced, if not been eliminated outright, of the United Kingdom getting stuck in a permanent arrangement which would leave the nation effectively tied up in a customs union with the EU.

Yet, even if Mrs May brings the DUP and a critical mass of Brexiteers over the line, she also needs support of significantly more Labour backbenchers too. Last week, she failed to peel off any more Labour MPs in constituencies that voted "Leave" in the 2016 referendum beyond the three who voted for her deal in January.

Even if Mrs May pulls off victory from the jaws of defeat, she already appears to have waved the white flag with her long-planned ambition of the United Kingdom leaving the EU on March 29.

This is because even should her deal gets passed this week, she will probably request an extension from the EU of the so-called Article 50 negotiating process until April, May or June. However, if her deal falls again, and there is no attempt at a fourth vote this month, there may now be a longer extension to potentially at least till December 2020 which is when the planned transition period, if a withdrawal is agreed, had been scheduled to end.

While it is most likely the other 27 EU governments will agree to a UK request to extend Article 50, this is not certain. The full complement of presidents and prime ministers have not formally discussed this issue together, and some of the leaders are worried - with populist, Eurosceptics expected to make big gains in May's European Parliament elections - that Brexit could continue to "pollute" the EU's agenda.

A long extension would also not be smooth-sailing for the UK government either. Brussels could attach tough conditions, and that there would be a growing possibility of a further UK referendum which Mrs May is currently opposed to.

One other key challenge with a long extension going beyond July 2, 2019 - the first day the new European Parliament meets - is that UK politicians may have to take part in the May 23-26 elections for that EU legislature. This would be politically very embarrassing for the UK government given its central mission is to leave the Brussels-based club.

POLITICAL FATE

A long extension of the negotiation process could also yet spell the end of Mrs May's premiership, given the widespread disquiet within the Conservative Party of her handling of Brexit. Even if she doesn't quit herself, there are several ways that she could be forced out of office in coming days or weeks.

For instance, she could be ousted by losing a vote of no-confidence in the Commons. Moreover, there remains a possibility that the Cabinet demands that she goes, possibly by several of them resigning themselves, to make the prime minister's position untenable.

Taken overall, while the odds are still against her, Mrs May could yet lose her way to victory this week on the withdrawal deal. Much will depend upon the position of hardline Brexiteers and the DUP as they calculate whether to row in behind the prime minister, or face a potentially lengthy Article 50 extension that could last until at least 2020 and risk Brexit being jeopardised by a second referendum.

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

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