And so, one of the most extraordinary weeks in British politics since the last most extraordinary week draws to a close. Where are we then? Well the Prime Minister has toured European capitals, cancelled a vote, faced a leadership challenge, promised her MPs she will deliver legal and political assurances around the famed backstop, told them that she’s off post Brexit, won a leadership challenge (but not by the margin she craved), been told by the EU Commission President Jean Claude-Juncker that she’s “nebulous”, and finally left Brussels in the last hour with well, very little. Mrs May is of course spinning madly – more negotiations will follow – but in private she will be livid. The optics of the spat between Mrs May and Mr Junker caught on camera this morning tell you that. If the EU’s position doesn’t change over next week, and through Christmas, then it seems almost impossible to imagine how Theresa May gets her deal through the House of Commons, when it is finally voted on, probably in mid-January. Lose then and we really are in uncharted waters – with no clear majority for anything in Parliament we could be headed out without a deal, or we may be facing an extension of Article 50 and a second referendum. If you are exhausted, spare a thought for Mrs May. Here’s our final take of the week on what’s happened, why it matters and of course, what could be next…
Prime Minister Theresa May was rebuffed by her fellow EU leaders at last night’s European Council summit after she urged them to give her the political and legal assurances that the Irish border backstop would not become a permanent arrangement.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker claimed that May had been unable to spell out exactly what she needed to get the deal through Parliament, criticising her “nebulous and imprecise” approach. However, several other EU leaders said that May had been “really precise” about what she believed would be required to ensure her deal could pass in the House of Commons, and this morning May and Junker were caught on camera having a tense argument.
In the summit conclusions published last night the EU27 leaders reiterated the backstop was an insurance policy which would only apply as long as it took to conclude an agreement that would avoid a hard border, and stressed their readiness to negotiate such an agreement expeditiously. However, the communique also made clear the Withdrawal Agreement “was not open for renegotiation” and in a further blow to the Prime Minister, a commitment to consider “further assurances” around the backstop was dropped.
In her post-summit press conference, May insisted she had been “crystal clear” about the assurances that would be required around the backstop. She welcomed the EU’s commitment to avoiding a backstop by completing trade negotiations as soon as possible, which she noted as having “a degree of legal force”. She added that UK and EU officials would meet in the coming days to discuss additional measures that could allow the House of Commons to back the existing deal, effectively accepting the underlying agreement would not be re-opened.
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz hinted at another extraordinary European Council Brexit summit in January, although this reportedly did not go down well with EU leaders, while Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar openly floated the possibility of an Article 50 extension.
EU leaders also pledged to step up preparations for a no deal Brexit, with Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel saying that there was “gigantic doubt” that May could get any deal passed the British Parliament, and that “no deal is a realistic prospect now”.
What does it mean?
Ahead of winning Wednesday’s vote of confidence from Tory MPs, the Prime Minister had committed to securing additional, legally binding concessions from the EU regarding the backstop. Just over 24 hours later these demands were roundly and unceremoniously spurned by her follow EU leaders, rounding off a week which underlines the degree to which trust has broken down on all sides.
Taken together, this means May is, once again, struggling to reconcile the demands of her party and her DUP allies, and indeed opposition MPs, with what can practically be negotiable with the EU. This hasn’t been helped by her appearing to have over-promised on what is achievable around the backstop as she sought to salvage her Premiership.
The EU appears to be running out of patience and looks increasingly unlikely to bail the PM out. It is possible they have concluded that she is almost certainly going to fail to get the deal through Parliament anyway, and any additional last-minute concessions would only prompt demands for more of the same.
It looks highly unlikely that that the clarifications set out in the summit conclusions, in addition to any further assurances the EU could feasibly agree to, will be enough to reconcile the large bloc of Tory MPs that oppose the Withdrawal Agreement, not to mention the DUP.
With the parliamentary impasse set to continue, speculation about a pivot to a softer, ‘Norway Plus’ Brexit to secure Labour support, a no deal Brexit and/or a second referendum will abound.
What happens next?
The Prime Minister’s task is to achieve concessions from both the EU and her own MPs if she is to get any Brexit deal through Parliament. The Prime Minister and her officials will, in the coming days and weeks, engage in negotiations with Brussels to seek some form of reassurance around the backstop that she can sell to her own MPs.
Whatever additional assurances she is able to secure, May has now committed to putting the deal before MPs by 21 January 2019. The Sun newspaper has reported that the earliest a vote could be held would be 14 January, as it is understood that the government would again allow for five full days of debate – MPs return from their Christmas break on January 7.
As per the EU Withdrawal Act, if she is still unsatisfied with the deal as it stands, May has the option of declaring that it has not been possible to conclude an agreement with the EU. She would have to make a statement to this effect by 21 January and set out her next steps by 26 January in the form of a motion which would be put to a House of Commons vote.
Meanwhile, the EU has said that they will move forward with ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement, while also setting out an updated raft of no deal contingency measures on 19 December.