The Brits can’t seem to figure out what they want from Brexit. They don’t want the deal Theresa May spent the last 32 months crafting with the EU, having rejected it twice. Last night Parliament made it clear that they won’t leave without a deal either. The Tories collapsed on what was supposed to have been a vote against a no-deal Brexit this month, which then turned into a permanent mandate against a hard Brexit. Without any idea of a deal that could command a majority, however, one EU negotiator called the result “the Titanic voting for the iceberg to get out of the way”:
— Reuters Top News (@Reuters) March 14, 2019
The prime minister was humiliated yet again amid chaotic scenes on Wednesday night in parliament, as her cabinet ruptured three ways and MPs inflicted two more defeats on the government to demand no deal should be taken off the table permanently.
In an unprecedented night of Tory splits, four cabinet ministers, Amber Rudd, David Mundell, David Gauke and Greg Clark, defied their party’s last-minute whip and refused to vote against the government’s own motion, after it was amended to rule out any prospect of no-deal Brexit.
Six other cabinet ministers also splintered to back a separate proposal for a “managed no deal”, despite the prime minister’s warning that the plan was doomed.
The series of embarrassing votes did settle one important point. May doesn’t have enough political support to push her plan through Parliament, but the hard-Brexiters don’t have enough support for a crash-out either. About the only bright spot for May from last night’s mess is that this might force some in the middle to focus on getting the only deal on the table. May plans yet another vote — the third — on her deal with Juncker, which the hardliners vowed to vote down again. Some who voted no twice are having second thoughts … er, third thoughts after last night:
Simon Clarke said there was “a gun to my head at this point” and suggested he could back the deal next time.
“I think voters will appreciate we have a very, very limited range of options left if we want to actually honour the manifesto commitment to leave at all. Now it’s effectively a bad Brexit deal or no Brexit at all, which is absolutely ghastly.”
That doesn’t mean a crash-out won’t happen anyway. In fact, it will happen by default if Parliament doesn’t take the May deal and won’t delay the Article 50 deadline, or if the EU won’t agree to a delay. It’s the default position at the moment — an unpopular position, as the vote made clear, but still the default, which explains the EU negotiator’s memorable Titanic-iceberg metaphor. A short delay at this point likely won’t help either, as it will just just extend the political status quo for a few weeks without any new incentives to change it.
What about a longer delay? Until now, the EU refused to consider it, but they’re starting to waver on an extension after watching what’s happening in Parliament. The political chaos in the UK has them spooked enough to back off their insistence on only the shortest of delays to the Article 50 deadline at the end of the month. EU council president Donald Tusk announced yesterday that he would urge the collective to offer a longer extension so the British can make up their minds about what they want:
Officials have until now insisted that only the triggering of a general election or second referendum could justify delaying Brexit beyond 29 March by more than a few months.
But in an intervention on Thursday morning, Tusk tweeted: “During my consultations ahead of [the leaders’ summit next week], I will appeal to the EU27 to be open to a long extension if the UK finds it necessary to rethink its Brexit strategy and build consensus around it.”
The move by Tusk will be seen by some as an attempt to help Theresa May scare Brexiters into supporting her deal or face a prolonged extra period of EU membership during which the risk of a softer Brexit or second referendum would rise.
But it also reflects the concern that a short extension of a few months would not resolve any of the issues in Westminster and merely wire-in a no-deal scenario this summer.
How long would it take to resolve the main Brexit gap — the hard-border issue in Ireland? There are only a handful of options, and all of them except for the May-Juncker backstop have been proclaimed anathema by one side or the other. They’ve spent 32 months working on the problem; how many more months will it take to come up with a solution that satisfies the majority on one side of the English Channel and the unanimous collective on the other?
That question makes this presidential tweet even more plaintive than it already sounds:
My Administration looks forward to negotiating a large scale Trade Deal with the United Kingdom. The potential is unlimited!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 14, 2019
At this rate, Brexit might get pushed into 2020 or beyond. It’s possible that a Trump administration will never get to negotiate a bilateral trade deal with the UK. The only unlimited potential on display on the other side of the pond is for faceplants.