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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 22 July 2018

Squaring the Brexit circle could cause Britain's prime minister to tumble from power

How Theresa May’s careful choreography fell apart within days

Britain Prime Minister Theresa May arrives at Westminster Abbey for a service to mark the centenary of the Royal Air Force in central London on Tuesday. Reuters
Britain Prime Minister Theresa May arrives at Westminster Abbey for a service to mark the centenary of the Royal Air Force in central London on Tuesday. Reuters

For a woman with a reputation as a dour, pragmatic politician, Theresa May certainly has a sense of theatre.

Over the weekend, in an attempt to hammer out a compromise on the process of Britain exiting the European Union, she locked the cabinet in the grand British country house known as Chequers, had her allies tell the press that everyone would have their phones confiscated, and let it be known that anyone who resigned would have their official cars withdrawn and would have to walk ignominiously to the train station, trailed by the media.

Once a deal was agreed at the end of the day, Mrs May was first in front of the cameras to announce it, before the text had even been reviewed. It had the feel of a rather British coup.

Unfortunately, such careful choreography could not survive the weekend, and by Monday morning, the agreement began to unravel, with two of the most senior British ministers resigning and the possibility that the entire government might collapse. Mrs May's attempt to square the circle of the most divisive British policy in decades began to fall apart within days.

No British policy in recent years has had appended to it so many adjectives. “Hard Brexit”, “semi-Brexit”, “full-fat Brexit”. Yet all are a means of describing the proximity of Britain and the European Union once the two have parted ways.

Adhere too closely to EU rules and Brexiteers, those most committed to leaving the union, will say that Britain has not really left. Stray too far away from EU rules and some big businesses and even politicians within Mrs May’s own party fear the consequences could be severe.

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Almost the entirety of the political drama that has gripped the government over the past two years turns on where along that continuum Mrs May situates her policy.

At the weekend, she appeared to believe she had struck a balance to keep everyone happy, only for two of her most senior Brexiteers – David Davis, the man in charge of Brexit negotiations and Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary – to resign within hours of each other, saying the deal kept them too close to the EU.

Their principal objection is that the UK’s negotiating position would put it in the situation of having to accept laws drafted by the EU, without having any say on how they were drafted.

Yet such technical aspects of the negotiating position are less important for the moment than the drama of the personalities. Because so serious is the resignation of Mr Davis and Mr Johnson that it is possible a leadership challenge could be triggered. There is a very real possibility that this will be Mrs May's last week as prime minister.

The mechanism for replacing a sitting prime minister is complicated, but it would involve a vote of no confidence in Mrs May, followed by a leadership contest. Whether those opposed to her have the numbers to trigger the vote and – especially – the political bravery to do so will only known in a matter of days.

And yet she will probably survive, if only because of the timing. Parliament is only two weeks away from its six week summer recess and there is a crucial deadline for the EU in October. The Conservatives would prefer to avoid a long, hot summer of internal debate over the next leader, with the possibility of being unprepared for the October deadline, allowing the Labour opposition to characterise them as unfit for government.

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Moreover, Mrs May is in a strong position to win that leadership contest – and the British public, exhausted after two major votes in two years, is unlikely to look kindly on a summer of debate that simply led back to Mrs May in Downing Street.

Already Brexit-supporting newspapers like the Daily Mail are talking up the possibility of another election and the opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn entering Downing Street, and it is noticeable that staunch Brexiteers have been surprisingly conciliatory.

It has, however, only been two days. Just as the Brexit consensus unravelled over a weekend, by the end of this week the consensus around Mrs May could also have unravelled.

What is certain is that the Brexit debate will continue to dominate the minds of those running the country.

Seen from outside the UK, the carousel of personalities does not matter much. Boris Johnson was probably better known to foreign governments than his replacement Jeremy Hunt is, but the difference is negligible. Ultimately what foreign governments want is a leadership they can do business with, and a cabinet in constant turmoil, cycling through personalities, does not inspire confidence. Those advocating for Britain to leave the EU usually add they want the country to take a leading role in the world, but the Brexit debate has left little room to focus on anything else.

Last weekend, Mrs May looked like a woman back in charge. Today, she presides over a shaky cabinet. There will be many around the world who conclude the UK is too preoccupied with its own affairs, and simply look elsewhere for allies.