The Brexit Intrigue and Theresa May’s Future
Valdai Papers
Want to know more about global politics?
Subscribe to our distribution list
Alexander Kramarenko

Director of  Development, Russian International Affairs Council.

Valdai Discussion Club

The decision to postpone until late January the December 11 vote in the House of Commons on the Withdrawal Agreement stipulating the terms of Britain’s exit from the European Union, agreement approved by the EU on November 25, created real chaos in the Brexit issue, this time at the government policy level. The WA and London’s position that forms the foundation of the deal and that was pushed through the Cabinet by Prime Minister Theresa May last July, led to two series of resignations. In all, 11 ministers quit, including key officials responsible for Brexit, such as Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Brexit Secretary David Davis and his successor Dominic Raab.

This time, May’s maneuvering provoked a vote of no confidence in the parliamentary party. On the evening of December 12, May won the ballot at 200 votes to 117. Now the Conservatives cannot retake the vote for one year. That said, her reputation has sustained serious damage. In particular, it was confirmed that one-third of the Conservatives would vote against Brexit. In other words, the deal would be voted down by a large margin. Indicatively, the entire opposition, starting from Labour, has denounced it as the worst option. This means that it does not suit either those that favor a sensible withdrawal from the EU, or those that want to remain. In fact, it is this prospect that compelled May to risk postponing the vote in parliament at the last minute and in violation of the established procedures.

The problem is that the Brits who voted for Brexit in the 2016 referendum proceeded from the need to restore full sovereignty and independence to their country. No specific divorce terms were discussed. Also, Britain joined the European Common Market in 1972, while the subsequent creeping integration was not endorsed by the electorate (as for that matter in other EU member states). In other words, it was a situation described in a Russian song that says “they married me off in my absence.”

The British needed integration for no reason other than to get access to the common market, but were sidetracked by the indivisibility of the four freedoms of movement, those of goods, services, capital and people. The latter caused the biggest problems in British society, especially against the backdrop of Angela Merkel’s 2015 arbitrary decision to have the EU accept a wave of refugees from Turkish territory. In the common opinion of analysts, it was the surging double-decked migration/terrorist threat on the continent that decided the outcome of the British referendum. It should be added that London was already on the sidelines of the integration process, or in its second round, being uninvolved either in Schengen, or the Eurozone.

On the other hand, having preserved its own currency and being one of the world’s leading financial centers, Britain has serious leverage to ensure its future in the world, where a clear-cut trend has emerged for re-gaining sovereignty and dropping what The Economist described in 2011 as an over-the-top liberal position.

The insular mentality and the habit of fighting back single-handedly, including within the confines of its own transcontinental empire, are of importance as well. Britain also relies on support from the US and the so-called Anglosphere as a whole, including the leading Commonwealth countries. Moreover, London will preserve financial independence and will be able, like Washington, to cut business taxes in the competitive struggle against its rivals, including those in continental Europe.

This is exactly what was understood under Global Britain, a slogan that May put forth when she became prime minister after the resignation of David Cameron who lost the referendum. According to Brexit supporters such as Boris Johnson, the Withdrawal Agreement “betrays” this vision of the country’s future. Under the WA terms, Britain will become a vassal to the EU without being a member. As US President Donald Trump said, London will barely be able to conclude a good bilateral trade agreement with the United States.

After the December 13 EU summit, where Theresa May was told in no uncertain terms that the agreement could not be reopened and that no additional guarantees would be given on the land border between Northern Ireland and Ireland (its regime is regulated by the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement on Ulster settlement, to which Dublin, a remaining EU member, was a party), she still continues saying that she will seek some “political and legal assurances” from Brussels on this score. At the same time, May rejects, and rightly so, the very idea of a second referendum, which would trigger off a political and constitutional crisis. In parallel, the Government will work on plans for withdrawing from the EU without any agreement (the EU is also working on this).

Although it is not ruled out that an attempt will be made to hold another parliamentary vote in the hope that opponents of the deal will change their minds because of the potential chaos in the markets as a result of its failure in late January, Britain is most likely to quit the EU on March 29, 2019 (this date was fixed during the talks, in the EU, and the already adopted British law), without an agreement and with the subsequent settlement of all issues on the operating level. Everything will depend on the goodwill of the sides that will have to deal with the new reality and cannot escape it. May’s future will be hanging in the air. Probably she will resign of her own free will. That said, she will certainly perform l her “historic” mission by plunging the country into “a tough Brexit” that nobody seemed to be willing to go through and that in the final analysis was the only possible option in this unprecedented divorce case.

Valdai Discussion Club