Much Ado About Everything No 10: Thexit?

Theresa May will probably hang on to the UK's premiership until after a 29 March 2019 orderly Brexit.

I was recently asked by a senior European diplomat for my opinion on UK Prime Minister Theresa May's chances of remaining in office for very much longer. This is hardly surprising given that seemingly every day there are fresh stories suggesting, if not outright claiming, that her demise is imminent. But this has been going on for months now and, one way or the other, she survives (albeit, in the words of the time-honoured cliché, "in office but not in power"). Nevertheless, we are now clearly very close to the crunch point where failure to reach agreement with the EU27 spirals the UK into a hard Brexit or Mrs May strikes a deal which she then has to 'sell' to parliament. So, the question I was asked is undoubtedly a valid one for all the false alarms of recent weeks.

In replying to my diplomat friend, I confessed at the outset that I really didn't know the answer. However, I then continued by dissecting the challenges facing Mrs May on the following lines.

First, it is not really clear where the Tory diehard-Brexiteers stand on the “hard Brexit” vs Michael Gove’s 'accept Chequers for now as the next step to a clean break in due course' line (insofar, of course, as any deal which Mrs May comes to with the EU27 actually resembles the 'Chequers compromise'). Some of them are so determined on a clean break that they probably would be prepared to bring the government down rather than go with the latter. But others will definitely fold and opt to fight another day. How the numbers divide is anyone’s guess just now.

Then there are the Tory Remainers. It only needs a dozen or so to vote with the opposition and wham! I think this is the lesser of these two threats to Mrs May from within her own party; but I can’t rule it out.

In both cases I am clearly assuming a deal with the EU27. But this takes us to what may prove to be the biggest threat of all, ie the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) on which Mrs May's parliamentary majority depends. Dublin has done brilliantly to keep the EU27 solid on the border question and I see little possibility of that changing. In those terms, the DUP has everything to gain from a train wreck. BUT the kicker is that it has everything to lose in a general election which would likely see it back in opposition to a Labour-led coalition which, Labour's eurosceptic leader Jeremy Corbyn notwithstanding, would be significantly more pro-EU than the current Tory administration.

Where does that leave us? On balance I still think Mrs May survives until next spring provided she can conclude a political agreement with the EU27 and barring a serious miscalculation by a third party (in the UK). And I think she will conclude such an agreement. But I certainly cannot rule out that miscalculation. And, in any case, her denouement could swiftly follow what would be her biggest achievement, ie a soft exit on 29 March.

Alastair Newton

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