LONDON – Britain’s overwrought members of Parliament have been sent home for 11 days, to rest and reflect on how to get the country out of the Brexit deadlock. As they ponder the future of the divorce talks, which now look like dragging on until the end of October, here are some scenarios they will be weighing:
Prime Minister Theresa May’s government has been holding private talks with Jeremy Corbyn’s opposition Labour Party since the start of April, in the hope of finding a Brexit option that both parties can support.
In theory, there is a lot of common ground in terms of a desired outcome, but there are strong political incentives for Corbyn not to rescue May and give up his ability to criticize her Brexit policy. Likewise many Conservatives are outraged that May is talking to him at all, and she has little room to give ground. On the other hand, neither party wants to be the unreasonable one that walks away.
May’s stated strategy, if the cross-party talks are inconclusive, is to move to a series of votes on different Brexit options. The structure of these will make a big difference to their prospects of success, as will the extent to which the parties try to influence the outcome.
The idea of such votes, when they were first floated in the Cabinet last year, was not to find a new solution so much as to demonstrate the unpopularity of alternatives to May’s deal. The problem is that even if they achieve this, MPs are unlikely to feel obliged to follow through and vote for the deal that they have rejected three times already. They could well reveal that there is no outcome that MPs support — that is what the previous rounds of indicative votes showed.
Local elections: May 2
This is one date that can’t be avoided. Nearly 9,000 local government seats in England and Northern Ireland are up for election. These council elections are supposed to be about locally controlled services, such as refuse collection, but are often used to register protest at national issues.
To further complicate matters, they happen in different places each year. More than half of this year’s seats are currently held by the Conservatives, so even in a calm year, the party would struggle to hold them all. A bad night for the party will inevitably spur calls for May to quit.
European elections: May 23
The fight that May didn’t want to have, these elections for the European Parliament are likely to generate far more interest than they usually manage in the U.K. Both supporters and opponents of Brexit will use them as a proxy referendum.
That could see the U.K.’s main parties, the Conservatives and Labour, squeezed. The Tories will be challenged by Nigel Farage’s old outfit, the U.K. Independence Party, and his new one, the Brexit Party. Labour, meanwhile, will be accused of being too supportive of Brexit by the Liberal Democrats and Change U.K., the new pro-EU party formed by Labour and Tory defectors.
After the vote, both pro- and anti-Brexit campaigners will seek to argue that the result shows the nation is behind them. Meanwhile, the Labour and Conservative leaders will be urged to adopt harder stances for or against the divorce from the EU.
New prime minister?
May has said that she will go once Brexit is delivered. She could struggle to last that long though. Cabinet members openly undermine her, the government’s central policy is in chaos, and Parliament no longer trusts her. Many see replacing her as essential to breaking the Brexit deadlock.
But the paradox of May is that, although she can’t get anything through Parliament, it is hard to see any successor getting anything through, either. They would either continue to pursue her deal, for which there is no support, offer a softer Brexit, which risks outraging Conservatives without winning Labour votes, or go for a harder Brexit, losing those Tories who want a close relationship with the EU.
Chancellor of the Exchequer (finance minister) Philip Hammond said Friday that May will stay on as prime minister to get Brexit done, even if that means remaining in the job until the end of October. “As far I know she doesn’t have any intention of leaving until that deal is done,” Hammond said in an interview at the International Monetary Fund meetings in Washington. “She’s a person with a strong sense of duty, she’s a person who feels she has an obligation to the British people to deliver Brexit, and she will certainly want to make good on that obligation.”
If the problem isn’t the prime minister, maybe the problem is Parliament. Tories would be reluctant to let May fight an election for them, but it is possible a new leader might fancy their chances at getting a public mandate for their position.
One possible outcome would be a Conservative majority, which might then be able to deliver Brexit. But recent months have surely dented the public’s confidence in the Conservatives, who have now been in office for nine years. If they lost only three seats, they would be unable to form a government. That would open the way to Prime Minister Corbyn.
If a general election doesn’t resolve the problem, then perhaps the question should be sent back to the people to answer in another referendum. The likeliest route to a plebiscite is under a Labour government.
Although Corbyn only supports the idea of a referendum on a Conservative Brexit, he could well find himself forced to accept one as Labour policy in an election. Even if he didn’t, a majority of his MPs want one, as would any of the parties he would be likely to form a coalition with.
But there is another route to a referendum: It is the one thing May could offer Labour MPs that would definitely make them pass her deal. The only problem is how her own side would react.