High stakes as U.K. leader Theresa May tries to sell her Brexit deal to her own cabinet

LONDON — Prime Minister Theresa May has managed to hash out a draft agreement with the European Union on the terms of Britain’s looming divorce from the EU. Now she has to convince her own cabinet that the deal is a good one, and that the default alternative — a “no-deal Brexit” — is too risky a gamble for the United Kingdom to take. 

May’s negotiating team handed its 500-page draft Brexit proposal over to cabinet members on Wednesday, after they finally nailed down an agreement with EU counterparts on what has proved the most contentious issue; keeping the border between Northern Ireland (which is Britain) and Ireland (which is Europe) open and unrestricted. 

The proposal from May’s team would, according to details leaked to British media, temporarily keep the entire U.K. within the European customs union, in exchange for the EU allowing the Irish border to remain free of physical barriers or checkpoints. That key tradeoff means Britain would still, for an unclear period, be subject to the EU’s collective trade rules. 

The trade union mandates tariff-free movement of goods across national boundaries within the bloc, and sets standardized rates for imports from outside the EU. It also sets dozens of other rules for trade within the EU.

May must convince her own

It has taken more than two years of agonizing negotiations in Brussels, set in motion by the 2016 public referendum result demanding the U.K. leave the European bloc, to get to this point. Now May must win over skeptics in her own party.

Many in May’s divided Conservative Party believe her proposal leaves Europe with too much control over Britain’s trade and borders, certainly if the U.K. remains for any considerable period part of the bloc’s customs union. More philosophically, and perhaps more importantly from a public perpective, they argue that such a deal would betray the British public’s will after the majority vote to leave the EU.

She insists her proposal will deliver on key promises to reduce Europe’s checks on British trade and immigration.

“We will deliver Brexit. We will not rerun the referendum,” she vowed on the floor of the British Parliament on Wednesday, ahead of what was expected to be a contentious meeting with her cabinet.

She has framed the choice facing her senior aides, and eventually the British Parliament, in stark terms: accept her deal with the EU, which she says is the best one Britain could possibly attain, or reject it and leave Britain susceptible to as-yet-unclear consequences when the divorce happens anyway on March 29, as stipulated by EU rules.

Experts, politicians and pundits have warned for months that such a “no-deal” Brexit could cripple trade and the flow of essential goods into Britain, given that the kingdom would suddenly have no trade agreements in place with its most vital trading partner; the other 27 members of the European Union.

What May does not often discuss in public is the third option: a rejection of her Brexit proposal, and her leadership entirely.

Possibility of a party rebellion

If enough of May’s cabinet members balk at the deal and resign, it could lead to a challenge for the leadership of the party. In Britain’s version of democracy, that means she could be unseated as Prime Minister and her entire government replaced through a snap election.

(Put simply, in the U.K. the public elects a party to lead the government, rather than a single person to lead the executive branch, as in the U.S. Party leaders are elected internally, and the leader of the party which wins a majority of seats in Parliament [when there is a clear majority] serves as prime minister.)

A senior party member warned hardline Conservative “Brexiteers” on Wednesday that if they fail to back May’s proposal, it could backfire on them.

Former Conservative Party leader William Hague, who voted to “Remain” in the 2016 referendum, said the public’s decision must now be respected, and warned that rejecting May’s proposal in hopes of a better deal would be inherently risky: “If you don’t take this opportunity to leave the EU, to get Brexit over the line, you might never leave at all,” he told BBC’s Radio 4.

A second referendum?

That last remark from Hague was an acknowledgement of a growing movement in the U.K. — in the public and among lawmakers from all major parties, including some Conservatives — for a second public referendum on any Brexit deal eventually agreed on by Parliament. 

Both left-leaning British lawmakers who never wanted to leave the EU, and some ardent backers of the vote to “Leave” have pushed for a second referendum, albeit with starkly different motivations.

While the Brexiteers are hoping another vote would bolster the mandate for a “hard” Brexit (a clean break, with the U.K. leaving all EU customs and trade agreements), many “Remainers” believe a second referendum could see the British public completely reverse its 2016 decision and reject any Brexit at all. The EU has left open the possibility of a British reversal.

Remainers point to polls which show a shift in opinion over the last two years, during which time the Brexit movement has been accused of lying about the potential benefits and pitfalls of a divorce from the EU — and breaking Britain’s election laws — during the bitter campaign ahead of the first referendum.

Hague acknowledged on Wednesday that if May’s cabinet fails to back her proposal and send it to Parliament for approval, “it would probably mean a different government.”

If that hypothetical new government isn’t a Conservative one, “Brexit might never happen at all,” Hague suggested.

May’s government is expected to make its full Brexit proposal public this week. The terms of the divorce need to be agreed not only by Britain’s Parliament (and possibly public if a 2nd referendum is called), but also by the governments of all 27 other members of the EU.

If a final deal is not agreed by March 29, the British withdrawal from the EU will be triggered automatically (no-deal Brexit) and all standing trade agreements between Britain and the EU will end. Britain’s trade with all non-EU nations is also currently controlled to a large degree by EU regulations — but it also currently benefits from the collective bargaining power of membership in the 28-member bloc.

World Trade Organization rules would still apply under that scenario, but without specific deals in place, economists say the cost of trade for the U.K. would increase significantly, at least until new agreements are reached.

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