The Last Days of May
After the events of this week, David Cameron is beginning to look like some sort of genius for resigning as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom a day after the country voted to exit the European Union. Theresa May, Cameron’s successor as PM, has for the last two-and-a-half years had the thankless task of attempting to negotiate a deal with European Union leaders looking to make the withdrawal process as difficult as possible in order to deter other countries from following the UK’s example and voting to leave, whilst at the same time attempting to maintain some sort of control over a Conservative and Unionist Party which remains as hopelessly divided over Brexit as it was before the referendum.
Ideologically nestled between the hardline Brexiters who want a complete exit from the single market and total control over trade and the British border and the pro-EU faction of the party who desire a close post-Brexit relationship with Brussels, May reached a deal with the EU which was almost instantly attacked by Conservative Members of Parliament as well as many in the opposition. Facing certain defeat in a House of Commons vote on her deal, May announced on Monday that she would delay the vote indefinitely until such time as she could guarantee it would gain parliamentary approval. While she may be able to gain the support of a few MPs from the Conservative or Labour benches, it seems unlikely that May will ever be able to gain enough support for her Brexit deal for it to pass in the Commons.
At issue is the deal’s inclusion of a “backstop” regarding the Northern Irish border, which would, in the event that the UK is unable to reach a new border agreement with the Irish government, mean that the only land border in Britain would still be subject to EU regulations, guaranteeing that the free movement of people and goods would continue even after Britain terminates its current relationship with Brussels. To hardline Brexiters, led by the erstwhile Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and European Research Group chairman Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Northern Irish backstop is unacceptable because it prevents Britain from reclaiming sovereignty over its borders post-Brexit.
The Democratic Unionist Party, which controls the Northern Irish government and which is propping up May’s minority government through a confidence and supply deal in the House of Commons, is opposed to the backstop because it means Northern Ireland will not be subject to the same laws regarding trade and border controls as the rest of the UK. Maintaining an open border between Ireland and Northern Ireland was central to the peace process of the 1994, in which the Irish Republican Army agreed to a ceasefire after decades of fighting between Republican and Unionist forces, and it is not hyperbolic to suggest that tightening the border could lead to political tensions or unrest once again. The inclusion of the backstop in its deal with the EU was a decision on the part of May and her negotiation team that guaranteed some degree of stability in Belfast post-Brexit and demonstrated a pragmatic approach to the issue of the Irish border. However, the hardline Brexiters, dedicated to a total reclamation of sovereignty, have turned the Irish border into an issue solely concerning the British national interest, rather than the interests of Ireland and political factions in Northern Ireland who may be incensed enough by the closing of the border to carry out acts of violence.
For their part, pro-EU MPs are opposed to May’s Brexit deal because it pulls the UK out of the single market and does not guarantee free movement between the UK and EU countries. If the UK remains in the single market and does not gain control over its borders, it has essentially remained subject to EU regulations whilst also losing its ability to implement policies in Brussels, effectively becoming a non-voting member of the bloc. A third option for Brexit, in which the UK would join the European Free Trade Area, which includes Switzerland and Norway, and remain a member of the European Economic Area, which includes all EU members as well as Norway, Iceland, and Lichtenstein, has been criticized by British and EU leaders, with one senior EU official describing it as a “Brexit in name only” and “the worst of all outcomes for the UK.” Remaining in the EEA would mean that the UK would have to accept free movement of EU nationals to and from the UK and would be subject to around six thousand EU trade and manufacturing regulations. Brexit in name only, indeed.
Few heads of government anywhere in the world would be able to withstand the sort of defeats and humiliations May has incurred over the past few months. Even armed with a Bank of England report detailing the disastrous consequences of a no-deal Brexit, she was unable to gain support for her Brexit deal, became the first Prime Minister ever held in contempt of parliament for refusing to make legal advice on her Brexit deal available to Members of Parliament, saw the House of Commons pass a measure giving them greater control over negotiating a Brexit deal if hers fails the pass, and has seen her Brexit proposals repeatedly rejected by Europe and by her own MPs. Despite her political vulnerability and the increasingly uncertain future of her government as calls for a vote of no confidence and a third general election since 2015 grow, she has faced no challenge for leadership of the Conservatives, even as many in the party grow ever more public in their criticism of her Brexit deal.
Since the disastrous June 2017 election, in which she lost her parliamentary majority, and saw Labour and its far-left leader Jeremy Corbyn gain more than 30 seats and come close to winning the popular vote despite most polls indicating significant losses throughout Britain, May’s future as Prime Minister has seemed under constant threat. However, the harsh reality of Britain’s current political climate, in which it is gripped by chaos and uncertainty over Brexit and its aftermath, means that not even the most power-hungry of Conservatives seems to want the job. However, if May continues to suffer defeat after defeat, it seems unlikely that she can hold on to power. Whether she is removed by her own party or forced to call an early general election, it seems increasingly likely that, by the time Britain officially withdraws from the EU in March of next year, 10 Downing Street will have a new occupant.
Womsikuk James is a member of the Dartmouth College Class of 2021, majoring in History. His work for the Dartmouth Business Review focuses on international relations and trade issues. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org