World / Politics | ANALYSIS

After months of setbacks, Theresa May's Brexit deal starts to fall into place

by Therese Raphael

Bloomberg Opinion

Wednesday night’s votes in Parliament suggest that Prime Minister Theresa May is closer to leading Britain out of the European Union with a Brexit deal than at any other point since her negotiations with Brussels began. Instead of another humiliating defeat, Parliament told her to stay the course. Crucially, the group of hard-line Brexiteers who have stood in her way before look split.

Several things have changed to make a deal look a lot more likely.

Faced with the threat of Cabinet and ministerial resignations, the prime minister conceded Tuesday that she will seek a short delay to Britain’s March 29 exit date — if her deal cannot be passed by March 12, and if Parliament rejects the option of leaving without a deal (which it certainly would) and then votes for a delay. May’s promises were embedded in a parliamentary amendment that was submitted by Labour lawmaker Yvette Cooper on Wednesday and which passed by a wide margin, with just 20 Brexiteers voting against it.

If moderates were mollified by May’s concession of the delay, then Brexiteers were chastened by the Labour Party’s decision to formally embrace a second referendum this week. Even with the grudging support of party leader Jeremy Corbyn, it is far from likely that another plebiscite will enjoy a majority in Parliament — but the option has become less theoretical. If Britain’s exit is delayed but no agreement reached, then Parliament might well find a second public vote is the best way to avert a no-deal exit. That is a sobering prospect for hard-liners in May’s party.

Indeed, the biggest change is that purist Brexiteers in her party sense that they have lost the battle for a no-deal exit and that they risk no Brexit at all, or a second referendum if they hold out for something the EU will never give. Nobody is buying the argument that a no-deal exit would only be a matter of some brief pain; the government’s own analysis, published this week, added to the volumes of evidence suggesting otherwise.

Businesses have been far more vocal than they were before the 2016 referendum. Traditionally euroskeptic quarters of the British media such as the Daily Mail have urged MPs to avoid a no-deal exit. Even Britain’s labor unions, many of whose Labour-supporting members voted to leave the EU but are likely to be hardest hit by a no-deal Brexit, would regard that outcome with horror.

In an interview in the Financial Times on Wednesday, leading Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg indicated that he might be willing to squint hard and accept a de facto, rather than legally airtight, assurance that Britain will not be indefinitely trapped in the EU’s customs union in order to prevent a hard border in Ireland. His comments were the first sign that Brexiteers may be prepared to leave with an imperfect deal rather than risk it all unraveling.

Much now rests on whether Attorney General Geoffrey Cox and EU negotiators (who also want to find a way for Britain to make an orderly exit at this stage) can find language that satisfies all sides. The EU has refused to reopen the negotiated Withdrawal Agreement, but there is talk of a special codicil.

It will take a legal Houdini to conjure up language that convinces Parliament that Britain can walk away from the customs union, the EU that the integrity of the single market is protected, and Ireland that there will be no customs infrastructure at border.

For those who would like to avoid the purgatory and confusion of a delayed Brexit, the uncertainty and contentiousness of a new referendum or the chaos of a no-deal exit, it has been a hopeful week so far. But let us be clear: Nothing is yet clear. The important — or “meaningful,” as it is called — vote on May’s deal will take place on March 12. In Brexitland, two weeks is a very long time.

Therese Raphael writes editorials on European politics and economics for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

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