After discarding a draft of what was to become Memoirs of Hadrian after having worked on it for close to a decade, Marguerite Yourcenar retained this sentence: “I begin to discern the profile of my death.”
Brexit has arrived at that point. However it winds up will be the end of the UK that we know now, even with a revocation of Article 50.
May isn’t much of a winner despite having stared down a leadership challenge. She still had over a third of her own party vote against her despite have a collection of horror show figures as her challengers and making a commitment to leave No. 10 at the end of the current Parliamentary term.. So this was at best an implicit beauty contest among Cinderella’s ugly sisters. And there may have been some fence-sitters who voted for May out of the recognition that a leadership contest this close to the Brexit drop dead date would further confirm, as if the intra-party power party play that produced Brexit already demonstrated, that the Tories are not fit to rule.
Despite all the fireworks in London, the bigger news comes from the Continent. The EU really is done with Brexit and will not negotiate further. And it may have finally found a way to say “no” that will register even with the Brits. From Politico’s morning newsletter:
EUROPEAN COUNCIL ON BREXIT: NO RENEGOTIATION. EU27 leaders will affirm after dinner at their meeting in Brussels today that the EU stands by the Withdrawal Agreement “and intends to proceed with its ratification,” according to draft summit conclusions obtained by Playbook. That means, as the text discussed by EU ambassadors says, the Brexit deal “is not open for renegotiation.”
Leaders are also expected to offer yet another/the same interpretation of the Withdrawal Agreement and the Political Declaration, and are expected to say that “the backstop is not a desirable outcome” and is “only intended as an insurance policy” to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland. They may even go as far as to say that the backstop intends to be a temporary solution — “unless and until” there’s a trade agreement, which they pledge to work on speedily so it will be in place by the end of transition period, meaning the backstop will not need to be triggered.
Is that all May can hope to get today? Yes. Full stop. Much of the text obtained by Playbook is in brackets, meaning that the draft is the maximum outcome possible. One more thing: The EU27 may declare they stand ready to investigate whether any further assurances can be provided to the U.K., as long as it doesn’t contradict the Withdrawal Agreement.
“Proceeding to ratification” may finally penetrate the fog of delusion across the Channel. It also means that Labour can play its game of constructive ambiguity much longer and must take a stand on the only three options: May’s deal, no deal, or no Brexit. The only remaining unicorn left is the idea of a second referendum, and it may take until the end of January to scotch it.
The UK press still is finally starting to digest that the UK can’t get changes to the agreement, although there’s way too much outrage in the messaging. For instance, from the Telegraph:
The European Union is poised to reject Theresa May’s demands for “legally binding assurances” that the Irish backstop will only ever be temporary, senior EU diplomats have told The Telegraph.
The EU rejection will come as another serious blow to the Prime Minister who was pinning her hopes of a legally-binding side-agreement with the EU to help convince her back-benchers to accept her Brexit deal.
EU ambassadors met in Brussels on to discuss how to respond to Mrs May’s pitch to leaders at Thursday’s summit dinner, where she will be given 10 minutes to outline what she needs to get the deal over the line in Westminster. “Politically she can have all the warm words she wants, but it was very clear in the meeting that there is very little appetite indeed for anything legally binding,” said a senior EU diplomatic source.
And the UK side has also been consistently misinterpreting the EU27’s locution. As Talleyrand explained, “A diplomat who says ‘yes’ means ‘maybe’, a diplomat who says ‘maybe’ means “no’, and a diplomat who says ‘no’ is no diplomat.”
Even though Richard North argues that “ERG have shot their bolt” in a “palace coup that failed,” ConservativeHome pegs the rebels as having done better than anticipated despite their loss:
Why, we have even offered you exact figures from today’s confidence ballot. 200 votes for Theresa May and 117 against her, we wrote this afternoon, would be a “Problematic Win”: “once the opposition to May climbs above a third of the electorate, it becomes harder to assert legitimacy”…
All in all, this result isn’t bad enough to spur her Cabinet into removing her, as Margaret Thatcher’s did to the then Prime Minister in 1990…
But nor is it good enough to free Theresa May from the ERG, their allies and the DUP – or from the Conservative Norwegians and second referendum campaigners, for that matter…
The ERG claims 80 members – a total about which we’ve always been a bit sniffy. But the lower the number really is, the more support they’ve put on today – in the wake of a rushed ballot, the timing of which caught the group on the hop; of a co-ordinated Twitter blitz on the Prime Minister’s behalf, and of a carefully-crafted appearance by her outside Downing Street, in which she pushed claims about the contest that were, shall we say, debatable.
You will say reply May scooped 63 per cent of the vote, and that her leadership can’t now be challenged for a year. Quite so. However, those facts simply open up a new range of problems. She will have wanted to win by a margin large enough to justify bringing her Brexit deal back to the Commons. It is very hard to see how this drab result can be treated as a springboard to that effect.
But if it can’t be used to threaten the Commons with No Deal (as in: “my deal or no deal”), it can scarcely be used to threaten the Commons with no Brexit either (“my deal or no Brexit”). These numbers don’t give her a platform solid enough on which to pivot to postponing Article 50, or a Second Referendum, or Norway Plus.
While this assessment is terribly logical, it’s at odds with May’s character. And engagement with reality has not been a feature much evident in the UK leadership classes for two years, so May isn’t terribly unusual in that respect.
As long as she can, May is going to continue to do what she has been doing, which is to insist that her deal is the best for the UK and do what she can to block alternatives. She will continue to reject a second referendum (not that there is time for that anyhow). She will reject an extension (at least until quite late, say late February). She will get the empty assurance side letters from the EU she’d said she’d seek and that they said they could provide. her.
As she has until now, May will thwart measures that would make revoking Article 50 more politically viable. Even though she acknowledges that “no Brexit” is a possible outcome, she’s presented it to the party as a threat on the order of having Corbyn come into power.
Just like Greece in 2015, May is playing a game of chicken. She will attempt to force a choice between her deal and no deal, on the belief that something will give so that she gets her deal, meaning either the Europeans blink on the backstop, or that MPs that would vote against her Withdrawal Agreement now lose their nerve as March 29 or the extended drop dead date approaches.
But we know the EU will not relent on the backstop, although the UK political and pundit classes will probably continue to refuse to accept that through much of January. They do not want to believe that even businesses on the Continent are not willing to go beyond the deal struck with May. They are not willing to give the UK a commercial advantage by being able to have lower labor and environmental regulations and still have special access to the EU. They’ve stretched the idea of what’s required to be in the Single Market and will go no further. They are prepared to take a “no deal” hit if they must.
So the result will be determined by how many Ultras there really are, and how many MPs from Labour might cross the aisle to counter them. If there really are 80 Ultras, plus the 10 members of the DUP means that May would need more than 85 votes from the Opposition.
In other words, despite all the noise and jousting we are likely to see in the coming months, there really aren’t that many degrees of freedom left. Perhaps Labour will attempt a Motion of No Confidence. But Labour won’t go there unless it is pretty sure it has the votes, and it didn’t as of early this week. Vlade has pointed out that the Ultras might launch or join in another play against May in the hope that the resulting political disarray would increase the odds of a crash out.
Perhaps there are scenarios I am missing. This week, the Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar pleaded with the Sinn Fein this week to take their Parliamentary seats to rescue Mays deal and was rebuffed, so that rescue seems unlikely down the road.
And more generally, it would be better if I were wrong.