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March 25, 2019

An object lesson in realpolitik

Beware of the UK newspapers this morning or over the weekend. Theresa May is not about to resign. We are ready to believe that there was a Tory plot. But it was not an intelligent one. The plotters and the journalists they co-opted did not think this through. Theresa May is where she is for a reason - she sits right on the crevice that divides the party. Everyone else is either a Remainer or a Leaver. We have not often cause to quote Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader. But we sympathise with his observation: if David Lidington is the answer, then was is the question? 

The official news from the Chequers meeting between May and a group of eurosceptics is that there was no handshake - she resigns, they vote for a her deal. But this is not how things work. There was never an explicit deal between Helmut Kohl and François Mitterrand over German unification and the euro. But there was an implicit understanding. The same is going on here. We, too, don’t think that she has a long political life left after Brexit, but a decision cannot be credibly pre-announced. It would weaken her in the final moments.

May is different from the kind of politician UK political commentators have grown used to. She gives terrible speeches. She does not know how to campaign. She can’t do small talk. EU leaders found out Thursday that, even in this critical moment, May showed no human emotion and refused to engage in any discussions of what would happen if her deal gots voted down for a third time. She came to Brussels to ask for an extension. And managed to offend the people she was asking. 

The Sun newspaper this morning was calling on her to resign after Brexit. Such a course of action makes sense. She will have delivered Brexit. She would resign afterwards, stay in office while her party selects her successor, and then hand power over. She is not going to hang on until December when she is certain to lose a leadership challenge. 

But beware of different Brexit scenarios intruding: there is still no Commons majority for her deal. The ERG is not backing her, at least not unilaterally. The waverers in the Labour Party have also pulled back since they have the opportunity to express their preference in indicative votes. No option will win outright, but her deal could still emerge as the relatively most supported option. In this case, the deal might pass in a fourth meaningful vote. In the unlikely event that the second referendum gets the most support, we think she could risk an open confrontation with parliament, force a no-deal Brexit on April 12, and then quit. If one of the soft Brexit options like the customs union receives the most support, we think she could reach out to Jeremy Corbyn and seek a compromise. The dilemma faced by the hard Brexiteers remains unchanged: by withholding support for May's deal they increase both the chances of a no-deal and of a soft Brexit, or even of no Brexit.

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March 25, 2019

On the probability of a no-deal Brexit

In his FT column Wolfgang Munchau makes the argument that a no-deal Brexit is possible even if it is nobody’s first choice. He says the probability of a no-deal Brexit has grown since the EU summit last week. For starters, Theresa May can have a no-deal Brexit if she wants to. The UK parliament does not have the legal tools to stop it. One of the biggest and most persistent misunderstandings about Brexit is that the whole business of extension is between the prime minister herself and the European Council.

There is a reasonable chance that the indicative votes won’t get the job done. The Tories have no mechanism to oust her now. A parliamentary vote of no-confidence is technically possible, but too much of a nuclear option to be credible. Munchau’s overall conclusion is that a no-deal Brexit is not the first choice of any of the decision-makers involved, but the more relevant point is that they are not ready to pay a high political price to avoid it. This also goes for EU leaders.

That message was also corroborated by a report from Jennifer Rankin and Daniel Boffey in the Guardian, who got hold of some verbatim accounts from Thursday evening at the European Council. We knew before that EU leaders were intensely frustrated with May, and have given up hope on the next instance of the meaningful vote. What we thought was interesting was the acceptance by the group that a no-deal Brexit was indeed very likely. 

"The leaders were deeply aware as a group that if they accepted 12 April as the new cliff edge, it could mean a no-deal Brexit. Macron turned to Varadkar and asked: ‘What will happen if there is a no-deal Brexit on 12 April. Would you be fine?’ He responded: ‘We can cope.’"

Merkel was pressing for the compromise solution on which the European Council eventually agreed. But we didn't get the sense that she is out to prevent a no-deal Brexit at all costs. Die Welt reported that Merkel’s main concern right now was for Brexit not to hijack the European election campaign.

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