No confidence: Labour bails on Brexit talks over May weakness

It was good while it lasted. Theresa May’s efforts to forge a grand coalition on her Brexit deal collapsed today after Jeremy Corbyn pulled out of talks. The Labour leader complimented the “constructive” nature of the negotiations, but politely concluded that May’s too weak to deliver anything from Conservatives any more:

In a letter to the prime minister, released on Friday, the Labour leader said the talks, designed to find a compromise Brexit plan, had been undermined by both a lack of common ground and concerns about whether a successor to May would stick to any deal.

Theresa May’s spokesman said the view was mutual: “It was clear to the government last night that the talks were not going to reach a successful conclusion.”

Corbyn wrote that the talks had taken place in good faith and had been “constructive”, adding: “However, it has become clear that, while there are some areas where compromise has been possible, we have been unable to bridge important policy gaps between us.

“Even more crucially, the increasing weakness and instability of your government means there cannot be confidence in securing whatever might be agreed between us.”

Ouch. Of course, that was the point of including Labour in the first place. May couldn’t sell the Withdrawal Agreement to Tories alone, and was encouraged by the EU to engage with Labour to gain enough votes for passage. That would have put Corbyn as well as May on the hook to deliver. Still, Corbyn’s point about the upcoming leadership fight among Conservatives is valid. That will undoubtedly focus on May’s Brexit plans and how unacceptable they are in one form or another to the Tories’ various constituencies, so it seems unlikely that May’s party will want to do anything on Brexit until they pick a new leader and seek out a new approach.

That brings us back to where Brexit last left off with Parliament. The chances of a no-deal exit in October have jumped back up, Ireland’s Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told RTÉ today. That means more planning for Dublin and more pressure on Belfast to restore its executive:

The Taoiseach has said the Government needs to “upgrade” its no-deal Brexit planning after the talks failed to reach agreement.

Speaking in Galway, Leo Varadkar described the development is “a very serious and negative” one.

He said it is a reminder that “Brexit hasn’t gone away” and that a “no-deal scenario remains a real possibility in October”.

Varadkar also says it’s not too late for Parliament to pass the Withdrawal Agreement as is and plan for an orderly exit. Theresa May thinks so too, as she’s planning for yet another vote on her Brexit plan:

May said this week she will seek an unprecedented fourth vote on her withdrawal treaty — you read that number right — in early June. The first three attempts ended in failure. …

May’s position as prime minister is as precarious as it’s ever been. Her Conservative Party received a drubbing in local elections earlier this month and is expected to do poorly in next week’s European Parliament elections, with the opinion polls suggesting the Tories will get trounced by Nigel Farage’s upstart Brexit Party.

May has agreed to discuss a timetable for her departure after Parliament votes on Brexit legislation in the first week of June.

If she defies the odds and wins that vote, it would be the political comeback of the century. If she loses, then plans could be made for her orderly departure.

Well, at least there’d be one orderly departure. Stephen Meyer argues at The Federalist that seeking an orderly departure is the entire problem with May’s approach to Brexit. Depart first, and then start dealing, Meyer proposes, and let WTO rules regulate the trade issue in the meantime:

First, making a free trade and mutual residency offer exploits the strength of Britain’s negotiating position and increases the likelihood of an EU-UK agreement. Currently, nearly 3.5 million EU citizens live in the UK, while only 1.2 million British people live in EU countries. Similarly, EU exporters sell far more goods and services to Britain than the reverse.

If the UK left the EU with no deal, EU exporters would have to pay an estimated £14 billion in tariffs per year to the UK, while UK exporters would only pay £6 billion to the EU. What’s more, if Britain leaves without a deal, under WTO rules the British government could subsidize UK exporters for their tariff expenditures from the revenue the government would receive from EU exporters. Clearly, the EU countries have far more to lose than the UK does in the event of a no-deal exit.

Second, a free trade agreement administered under WTO auspices would dissolve the thorny Irish border problem. Indeed, the EU regulations that May has accepted to prevent customs checks between the two Irelands are only necessary in the absence of a UK-EU free trade deal.

Third, since this proposed deal would free the UK from the EU Customs Union, it would allow the UK to make free trade agreements with non-EU countries. By contrast, May’s current deal leaves the UK in the Customs Union for nearly two years and requires EU approval for the UK to withdraw permanently.

Finally, this negotiating strategy circumvents the need for a new vote in Parliament over an exit deal, since the government would no longer be seeking such a deal. Indeed, since both Houses of Parliament already voted to leave the EU under Article 50, another exit vote is legally unnecessary. Once agreed, a free trade and mutual residency deal would, however, require Parliamentary approval.

It sounds simple, but it’s not that easy. Why would it be easier to reach a trade agreement after a tariff war than before it? Meyer’s calculation on a tariff war does paint the UK as having the advantage, except that the UK will bear all that £6 billion on its own, while the £14 billion will get split up among 27 other nations. The EU as a whole might lose more, but the UK is going to feel it worst individually, and that assumes that EU countries are keen on maintaining current trade levels with the EU under these circumstances. They might choose instead to trade more among themselves.

Meyer’s argument also contradicts itself on the Irish-border problem that has proven to be the biggest obstacle for Brexit. If the UK and EU apply reflexive tariffs through the WTO in a no-deal exit, that itself creates the need for a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland to enforce them. A free-trade agreement might resolve that, but Meyer’s proposing an exit without a deal. May’s Withdrawal Agreement may have its serious flaws, but it was a trade deal nonetheless that promised to address the issue of two separate customs entities at some point. A no-deal exit would instantly create the need for checkpoints and inspections on trade even if a reciprocal residency agreement accompanied it. And since Brexiteer demands included a restriction on movement, even that would be problematic.

Even so, Meyer’s scenario will likely be what the UK and EU enter by default. At this point, there seems to be no other options for consensus, except for the consensus that May has proven inept at delivering the impossible — a painless Brexit.