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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 September 2018

Infighting, rebellion over the customs union and a hefty divorce settlement: how Brexit could leave May behind the wheel with failing brakes

In granting scope for the parliamentary tail to wag the dog, the British prime minister has no room for manoeuvre, says Damien McElroy

British Prime Minister Theresa May at the unveiling of the statue of suffragist Millicent Fawcett in London. Hannah Mckay / Reuters
British Prime Minister Theresa May at the unveiling of the statue of suffragist Millicent Fawcett in London. Hannah Mckay / Reuters

Brexit is defining development for the whole of Europe but it is dominated by a game of chicken. The outcome, potentially a car crash, is just weeks away.

When British people were voting in the 2016 referendum on membership of the European Union, one of the most memorable contributions came, forged from personal experience, from the historian Niall Ferguson.

Breaking away from Europe, he warned, would be the bitterest of divorces. Like an ugly High Court feud that plays out in the media, the spurned side – Europe – would seek humiliation at every turn for the leaving party.

This is manifestly the subtext of the current high stakes negotiations on the break-up. Europe set up the game and has established rules of the road. As the track reaches the pinch point, the rules are working in Brussels favour. There may even be a brick wall facing the British and no one knows if the UK team is foolhardy enough to go for a full throttle Brexit.

Already an alimony payment of £40 billion (Dh202bn) has been conceded but that is nowhere near enough. The looming choice for the British to avoid a messy outcome is to slam on the brakes. This would probably mean a commitment to an EU-led customs union.

This compromise would preserve a strategic European entity as a cornerstone of world trade. It would allow for a free trading regime on the Irish border, removing the threat of impediments. But unless defined with flexibility, it would stop the British from making individual trade deals with other nations around the world.

An internal war in the ruling Conservative party means this choice appears impossible for Theresa May. The siren call of a world of global trading partnerships has stirred in the breast of many but not all in her party.

An opposite faction scorns the idea of diluting access to the country’s biggest European markets. This group and the opposition Labour Party have steadily upped the pressure for a customs union outcome.

Leading a government without a majority, Mrs May is thus trapped behind the wheel of a speeding car. She is unable to devote her whole attention to the race with the Europeans. Instead she is trying to hold back infighting within her own vehicle.

The problem is that time will not allow for this to resolve in its own way. That is why it is a game of chicken.

If the British do not have clearly defined solutions for the Irish border problem ready by June, talks could be declared to have reached an endgame.

If there is still no solution by October – and remember Europeans essentially take six weeks of holiday in July and August – the car crash scenario will be upon us.

How to avoid it? Brake and take an exit slip road may be the only option.

There are many options that the government of Mrs May has ruled out: staying in the single market; setting up a customs union that, like Turkey, allows some continued alignment; establishing an association agreement like that of Ukraine, which makes clear a continued political and economic partnership.

An obsession with stopping migration has been the hallmark of Mrs May’s approach. Apart from serving to satisfy her own prejudices, it is not entirely clear that this represents the be-all and end-all of Brexit.

Her consequent hardline opposition to all forms of collusive economic structures has allowed her small but crucial partners in the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party to hold fast against a specific all-Ireland solution to the border predicament.

In granting scope for the parliamentary tail to wag the dog, Mrs May has no room for manoeuvre.

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Read more from Damien McElroy:

Macron and Trump's bromance stems from a mutual love of personality politics

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Artificial intelligence will transform public services but who owns the data?

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Incredibly, given the outcome of the general election last year, when the ultra-leftist Jeremy Corbyn came close to upsetting the odds, there are now mutterings on the right for another Brexit election.

This is beyond a joke. Left in place after another bloody election campaign, Mrs May would continue to exercise the same malign, negative influence on the continuing Brexit process. It would be far better if she turned over the leadership to a replacement but even that is a risky proposition.

As things are, if Mrs May continues to be incapable of leadership, the Europeans should take a hard look at the fate of the continent in the event of a bust-up.

Rather than playing the game of extracting maximum cost and inflicting humiliation, the collective leadership of the continent should make its own offer of new partnership.

That could be the only intervention that changes the game. Many British Brexiteers could simulate fury at Brussels imposing a settlement on their proud offshore nation.

There are many more who would be relieved to reach an honourable agreement with the continent and move on.

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