April 08, 2019
Welcome to the new Brexit grand coalition
The best way to understand what is happening right now is to look at the Brexit crisis from the perspective of Theresa May. Her party has failed to support her withdrawal agreement three times, and put her on notice that it wants a new leader and prime minister at some point this year. The success or failure of Brexit is the one and only policy for which May will be known after she leaves office. She hasn’t done much else in her time. So it should really not come as a surprise that she is now abandoning her party in pursuit of a deal with Jeremy Corbyn. And she is now framing the choice openly as a run-off between deal versus no-Brexit.
In that framework, she may actually have an incentive to accept Donald Tusk’s offer of a long flexible extension. May is a little disingenuous when she says that the Cooper-Letwin bill ruled out a no-deal Brexit. As we pointed out before, it didn’t. In any case, it is still stuck in the Lords. But Yvette Cooper and Oliver Letwin have become the useful idiot in May’s new gambit. The prospects of a Brexit failure is so scary for the majority of Conservative MPs that they would support her deal even if it included a customs union, which it probably will.
To get a sense of the scale of the U-turn that is currently taking place, just look at this excerpt from her address last night:
"There are lots of things on which I disagree with the Labour Party on policy issues, but on Brexit I think there are some things we agree on: ending free movement, ensuring we leave with a good deal, protecting jobs, protecting security. And so we are talking. Can we find a way through this that ensures that we can get a good deal and a deal agreed through parliament? It’ll mean compromise on both sides but I believe that delivering Brexit is the most important thing for us."
In contrast to the vast majority of commentators, we consider May one of the most rational politicians we have ever come across. As the well-known political commentator Peter Oborne writes, she changed her mind on the hard Brexit during a visit in Northern Ireland in February. She returned deeply shaken after being convinced that a no-deal Brexit would lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom. And, while Oborne dismisses any suggestions that the Queen might have personally intervened in this debate, he pointed out that the Archbishop of Canterbury warned her that a hard Brexit was immoral.
Wolfgang Munchau writes in his FT column that the start of cross-party talks would constitute what EU leaders have described as a political way forward. He says that there is a good chance that the European Council will extend at its meeting on Wednesday, though Emmanuel Macron will push for hard conditionality. We think there are legal limits in respect of constraining a British prime minister’s voting rights, but there is nothing to stop the European Council and May reaching a mutual understanding that the UK would not interfere in debates on the future of the EU. But such a deal would also tie the European Council much closer to May personally, as her successor could not be expected to abide by such an agreement. This is why Munchau argues that December should be the outer limit for an extension, as May will probably not be prime minister after that.
One of the issues in the discussions between May and Corbyn and their respective teams is how to make the deal Boris-proof as Labour calls it: to prevent it from being unravelled by Boris Johnson if he were to become May's successor. We are not sure that it is possible for one government to insure against the action of a successor, just as one parliament cannot bind the next. Politics won’t suddenly stop.
In his Monday column in the Daily Telegraph, Johnson raises one potential issue that might come to haunt May: what if Corbyn uses these talks only to split the Conservative, and then walks away? We think this is indeed possible, which is why we are treating this development as genuinely open-ended. And we don’t think that the hard Brexit is off-the-table either. There is no way that the House of Commons will revoke Brexit or organise a referendum while May is still prime minister. If nothing can be agreed now, the decision might well fall to her successor.