Ever since Britain voted to leave the EU in 2016, and later when Article 50 was triggered by the British Government, politics in the country has been a pantomime. As of December 13, the chaos has worsened with the government boxed into a corner entirely.
In early November, PM Theresa May finally unveiled a preliminary 585 page BREXIT agreement negotiated with the EU, that extended the transition period to end-December 2020 among other provisions. But the sticking point was a provision that in the event a final deal is not reached by 1st Jan 2021, Northern Ireland would enter a customs union with the EU, while the rest of the UK comes out – creating a border within the UK itself. This was done to prevent a border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, the prospect of which caused riots and violence for the better part of the 20th century. However, this so-called ‘Irish Backstop’ can only be rescinded by a joint vote of EU and UK, giving the EU an effective veto over British sovereignty. This is because of the 1997 Good Friday Agreement, (read History of BREXIT) which solved a civil strife on the island of Ireland. This was done by ensuring an open border and virtually zero-tariff trade between Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland. The EU wants to ensure that the UK is not able to unilaterally withdraw from the agreement as Republic of Ireland depends heavily for food imports on the UK, in addition to the vulnerable social relations on the island.
Thus, apprehending a loss in the House of Commons, the PM withdrew the deal from the Parliament with a promise of renegotiating the backstop, on December 11. Pulling the vote stirred the hornet’s nest, gravely agitating the MPs, as the Labour Party called for a general election. More importantly, it compromised the Prime Ministers own longstanding position that the deal could not be renegotiated. It emboldened pro-BREXIT Conservative MPs like Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees Mogg, who have been demanding a better deal or want to leave without one.
But the prospect of renegotiation fell through as quickly as it began when the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker said that there was ‘no room whatsoever’ for a renegotiation of the BREXIT agreement. Donald Tusk, president of the European Council echoed the sentiment saying,
"We will not renegotiate the deal, including the backstop, but we are ready to discuss how to facilitate UK ratification. As time is running out, we will also discuss our preparedness for a no-deal scenario."
The snubbing by the EU has made the Prime Minister’s position untenable. She needs a better deal to quell a rebellion within her own party and prevent a general election, but there is little time for renegotiation, assuming the EU changes its mind. More importantly doing so would open a pandora’s box as Scotland, which also voted overwhelmingly to stay will reassert demands to get Northern Ireland like treatment, effectively breaking up the UK. Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon referred to the postponement of the Commons’ vote as an act of political cowardice.
The UK has until January 2019 to decide if it will accept PM May’s preliminary deal, failing which on March 29, 2019, its status vis-à-vis the EU will overnight become the same as non-EU countries. This will have severe ramifications for companies and businesses within the UK and EU, whose supply chains have become inextricably linked to other member countries in the EU. Car manufacturers like Jaguar and Rolls-Royce for instance, overnight parts from Germany and Italy and the lack of customs in the EU has allowed them to function on zero inventories. Suddenly, border checks would delay shipments by days on end, in addition to slapping duties, effectively stopping production as raw materials run out forcing these companies to spend billions on building new warehouses to stockpile reserves. In Northern Ireland, the situation would worsen as the end of free movement of labour would separate communities and possibly cause food shortages in Ireland (it depends heavily on UK for food imports), paving the way for large-scale violence.
In a bizarre turn of events in the early hours of December 12, 2018, Sir Graham Brady, the Chairman of the 1922 Committee of the Conservative Party announced that the Prime Minister was being challenged from within. The 1922 Committee is a body of Conservative MPs who are not Ministers in the government – the backbenchers. Mrs. May was challenged, primarily by the members of the European Research Group - an internal faction within the Conservative Party that wants a hard BREXIT. The ERG's prominent members include the infamous BREXIT campaign leader Boris Johnson, former BREXIT Secretary David Davis, and Jacob Rees Mogg. All three are vocal critics of the Prime Minister and hold not-so-secret ambitions of becoming Prime Minister.
When 15% of the total Conservative MPs in the House of Commons submit a letter calling for a vote of confidence in the Leader of the Conservative Party, an internal vote of confidence is called where the sitting leader has to win support of atleast 50% + 1, of the total MPs of the party to stay on. In the present Parliament, PM May needed 158+1 vote to stay on as leader of the Conservative Party. If she would have lost the vote, a leadership election in the Conservative Party would ensue, at the conclusion of which a new PM would be installed. While May would have stayed on as PM until this election, she would be powerless and effectively a placeholder.
The vote was conducted last evening the Prime Minister managed to win 200 votes, with 117 against. The commotion inside the Conservative Party was a scary prospect for the country, which stared at an effectively powerless Prime Minister with only weeks left for a final decision. However, the result strengthens the Prime Minister in a way. The rules preclude any challenge to her leading the Conservative Party for a year now – she can only be removed by a vote in the entire Parliament now, which would trigger a general election. This means that she now has the capacity to call for a general election and purge the errant MPs of her party – the likes of Boris Johnson, David Davis, and Jacob Rees Mogg.
From L to R: David Davis, Boris Johnson, and Jacob Rees Mogg.
However, a general election so close to the deadline could anger the public and bring in the Labour Party with Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn – Mrs. May is highly unpopular as it is. While Jeremy Corbyn has promised a better deal, even if the EU were forced to renegotiate with a new Prime Minister, Article 50 would certainly have to be rescinded for a while – effectively delaying BREXIT at a time when fatigue is high in the EU and Britain. The third option, that of calling a second referendum to allow people to change their decision, would allow pro-BREXITeers to allege a short-circuiting of the democratic process. Indeed, questions of the government deliberately botching up the process to get a revote would be raised. The faith of the public in the democratic process would be shaken up, like Denmark which voted twice on ratifying the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 and 1993, only succeeding in the second attempt.
For now, while PM May has fended off any internal revolts, it is unlikely that her deal would pass the House of Commons where she does not have a majority. Furthermore, the prospect of her government collapsing in a no-confidence motion looms large and depends upon the DUP, a Northern Ireland based party which hates the Backstop. PM May will meet with Angela Merkel and other EU leaders today, if she doesn’t work out a solution that placates the DUP, UK might be headed for a new election, and BREXIT could well be delayed. The drama continues.
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