Leadership contest puts Brexit at risk
Second referendum chances rise as clock ticks down to deadline
Theresa May’s last remaining argument for holding on to the job boils down to the plea that Brexit means there is no time to change prime minister so close to the deadline to leave Europe.
Following more than a year of negotiations with Brussels, Mrs May unveiled a deal in November to manage the British withdraw from the bloc next March. The strength of the rebellion against the agreement caught the prime minister off guard.
Having promised a parliament vote on the deal on Tuesday, she was forced to postpone the debate and instead fly to European capitals looking for new concessions. Rebuffed in Amsterdam, Berlin and Brussels, she flew home on Tuesday night to find that her own MPs had forced a confidence vote in her leadership.
Whatever the outcome, the vote is a defining moment for Brexit. “The Prime Minister has come out fighting, and warned that if she is toppled it risks chaos. She’s saying ‘I’m here in the national interest, the plotters are interested only in themselves,” said Will Walden, a former aide to Mrs May’s rival Boris Johnson, who now works for the Edelman advisory group.
“To a certain extent the Prime Minister was probably ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’, but in pulling the Commons vote on her Brexit deal at the last minute on Monday, she almost certainly accelerated opposition to her leadership and made a challenge more likely. That challenge has now come, and by this evening we will at least know if she has won or lost the vote.”
None of the events in recent days alters the time table for Brexit. Without a deal that parliament accepts, Britain is on course for a hard landing in less than four months.
Many of Mrs May’s cabinet colleagues sought to rally support with warning that a leadership election would re-open the overall Brexit project. Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary, took to handing out an all capitals warning on Twitter to MPs about the effect of a leadership contest on the bigger picture. “My sincere request to colleagues: BREXIT IS NOT GUARANTEED and the British people will not forgive us if we fail to deliver it,” he wrote. “All those who want to stop it are praying for a Conservative leadership contest. So don’t take the risk.”
Other cabinet colleagues added to the air of uncertainty. Liam Fox, the international trade secretary and ardent Brexiteer, warned even if Mrs May prevailed her deal may be dead. “I think it is very difficult to support the deal if we don’t get changes to the backstop,” he said. “I don’t think we will get through, I’m not even sure if the cabinet will agree for it to be put to the House of Commons.”
Not for the first time, European governments were witnessing the damaging consequences for Mrs May of taking a hardline against British pleas for flexibility. Jean Claude Juncker, the head of the European Commission told Mrs May he had nothing better to offer when she met him on Tuesday.
"This is the best deal possible for Britain, this is the best deal possible for Europe,” he said. “This is the only deal possible.”
One of the countries most affected by a collapse in Britain’s trading relationship with Europe would be Ireland. Leo Varadkar, the prime minister, told parliament in Dublin that senior European leaders were now reviewing their position. “I’ll be taking a call with President Juncker later on today to see what assurances we can give the United Kingdom parliament that might assist them to ratify the withdrawal agreement,” he said.
The duo of Brexit secretaries who quit Mrs May’s government having failed to secure a more friendly deal unveiled an alternative on Wednesday. David Davis and Dominic Raab said they would support a decade extendable free trade agreement that would ensure free moment continued across the Irish border.
This would involve free trade in goods and no tariffs. To ensure there would be no checks on the frontiers, but at other locations instead a technology-based solution for the border would involve cameras and other high tech monitors.
Philip Blond, a director of the think tank ResPublica, told The National that the leadership challenge and the failure to pass the deal with Brussels, made the likelihood of a second referendum much higher. “I think we're heading for a second referendum because I cannot see any middle deal that May might generate passing parliament,” he said. “Unless she can get Europe to shift on the backstop and there's absolutely no evidence that Europe will shift on the backstop, there is no middle option available now in terms of time or ability before Brexit day.
“There's no middle option.”
Updated: February 20, 2019 04:56 PM