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COMMENTARY

Why May 23 could be Brexit Day as UK changes strategy

ANGELA Merkel visits the Republic of Ireland on Thursday, ahead of next Wednesday's special European Council summit of presidents and prime ministers on Brexit. The visit comes amid signs that - at long last - Theresa May could properly explore a cross-UK party deal on Brexit, and will ask Brussels next week for a further deadline extension of the so-called Article 50 process to May 23.

The reason for Mrs Merkel's important visit is a show of solidarity with Dublin amid the continuing possibility that the United Kingdom could still leave the Brussels-based club with no deal next Friday, unless the EU-27 unanimously offer an extension - albeit potentially of a different length to the May 23 one Mrs May now seeks. However, while such a disorderly exit next week cannot be excluded, the news from London and Brussels appeared brighter on Tuesday.

In what Mrs May called a "decisive moment for the future of these islands", she said on Tuesday after a marathon seven-hour Cabinet meeting that she will now engage with Opposition Leader Jeremy Corbyn. While nothing can be taken for granted, it appears possible that she may now be willing - almost three years after the original referendum - to bend on her previous "red lines" to secure a cross-party deal.

Mrs May made clear on Tuesday that she will still not compromise on a new Brexit referendum or so-called People's Vote. But she implicitly indicated she might move toward a "softer exit" based around a customs union and/or a closer relationship with the European Single Market (short of the UK's current full membership) if there is a clear cross-party deal to facilitate this.

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This has alarmed many Brexiteers in her Conservative Party, that will only countenance the hardest of exits from the EU. Former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who could yet become Mrs May's successor as Conservative Party Leader, said Tuesday, for instance, that "the prime minister and Cabinet have concluded that any deal is better than no deal, and this is truly a very bad deal indeed - one that leaves us being run by the EU. I can under no circumstances vote for a deal involving a customs union as I believe that it does not deliver on the referendum".

What Mrs May also made clear Tuesday, at this stage at least, is that she still wants the United Kingdom to leave the EU no later than May 23, so that the nation does not have to take part in next month's European Parliament elections. This, however, poses a challenge for London and Brussels as, unless the United Kingdom participates in those ballots, it seems increasingly plausible that there can be no further Article 50 extension beyond May 23, whether or not a deal is agreed before then. In this sense, the Brexit can may not be able to be "kicked down the road" any further.

If the May-Corbyn talks fail to yield a breakthrough, Mrs May said on Tuesday that she would welcome a further round of indicative votes this month to try to forge a parliamentary consensus around a clear Brexit proposition. At the same time, she implicitly indicated that her own withdrawal deal - which has already been voted down three times - will not be brought back for a fourth meaningful vote this week.

Her apparent change in Brexit strategy has already been generally welcomed by some in Brussels. President of the European Council Donald Tusk, for instance, said on Tuesday that "even if, after today, we don't know what the end result will be, let us be patient".

Yet, while he was positive, others across the EU are sceptical that an additional short extension to May 23 will be enough time to forge the consensus ideally needed across the United Kingdom on Brexit. The EU-27 are well aware of continuing disagreement within the populace and political elites on this vexed issue.

INTRA-FACTION DISAGREEMENTS

And, as Boris Johnson's comments underline, this is not just a Leave-versus-Remain debate, given the intra-faction disagreements even within those favouring Brexit. A challenge here is that those who voted in 2016 to exit did so for diverse and sometimes divergent reasons, which makes fashioning support for a Brexit agreement very difficult.

And the continuing divisions within the electorate on these issues are underlined in polls, which now generally show more people favouring EU membership than not, and the country split over whether maintaining full access to the European Single Market (akin to a Norway-style softer deal), or being able to limit migration (as a Canada-style harder deal would allow), should be the key objective.

In the immediate term, at least to April 10, the prospects of Mrs May calling a snap general election - as was speculated in the UK media at the weekend - appear to have receded.

Yet this option still cannot be dismissed this spring and summer, despite the potential obstacles.

In this context, and the febrile political climate in Westminster, the prospects for a People's Vote on the terms of any Brexit withdrawal deal remain highly uncertain too, not least given Mrs May's personal disapproval of this option. Last month, an estimated one million people marched in London for the right to have such a referendum and there is continuing momentum behind this outcome, which could include an option of remaining in the EU.

The campaign for a referendum has public support from three of the four living former prime ministers Gordon Brown, Tony Blair and John Major. They all argue that such an outcome is now potentially the only way to decide the issue given the impasse in Parliament.

In terms of Mrs May's personal political position as prime minister, she also looks now to be secure, at least until next week's EU summit. Nonetheless, her critics, such as the maverick Mr Johnson, are circling and biding their time to strike later this year.

Her growing band of critics know she remains in a politically precarious position with massive Brexit challenges still unresolved. They are aware Parliament, and the nation at large, remains badly divided and still heading towards what could be a disorderly exit on either April 12 or May 23 - which would still see no withdrawal deal agreed. In this sense, this week's latest political drama may only "kick the can down the road", with the United Kingdom potentially remaining in Brexit gridlock for some time to come.

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