April 25, 2019
May will go, but probably not until September
There is one thing Theresa May and the EU leaders have in common: a tendency to kick the can down the road even if this course of action is manifestly not in anyone's interest other than their own.
After yesterday's narrow vote by the 1922 committee of Tory backbenchers not to change the one-year grace period for party leadership challenges, May has won a little time. But time for what? If she cannot find a majority in the next couple of weeks for either another meaningful vote or the withdrawal agreement bill, the pressure on her to leave with intensify again.
The 1922 committee yesterday formally requested May to set out the plans for her departure in case the withdrawal bill does not pass. Graham Brady, chairman of the committee, said he does not expect her to stay on all the way until December. We have never joined the chorus of UK political commentators with their premature forecasts of May's impending political death. But even we would agree that she cannot stay on until the end of the year.
We think the critical moment will be the Tory Party conference in Manchester, to be held from September 29 to October 2. We cannot see her addressing the conference as a leader, not having delivered Brexit and without a successor in place. Also consider that this is just two weeks before the October European Council, which could decide on yet another extension request. We don't think the Tories would want May to attend that meeting, and potentially agree to a long delay - as a parting gift - before handing power over to her successor. The possibility of a long extension is not yet on people's radar screens, but it will be after the local and European elections in May.
It is therefore our expectation that the Tories will want to have a successor in place by late September. And that will require May to make an announcement of her decision to step down by June at the latest, deal or no deal.
Andrew Duff argues that the European Council has now essentially lost control of Brexit, and has allowed itself to be exposed to the vagaries of UK politics. This rhymes with our own observation that the EU has not thought through the consequences of extending into the next UK premiership. We liked Duff's quote of an EU official who said that May could be succeeded by "someone worse".
Duff considers possibilities for the EU to constrain the freedom of manoeuvre of the next UK prime minister. One possibility would be to upgrade the political declaration into a draft mandate for the negotiations on a future association agreement. More likely is the opposite course of action - to downgrade the political declaration and to redraft it during the transition period.
We agree with his conclusion.
"The European Union, poised to elect new leadership, is being destabilised by Brexit. Anxious to move on to tackle some big legislative and diplomatic issues, the EU is distracted from doing so. Having dealt efficiently with the first phase of Brexit, it now faces the possibility of years of wrangling with the British. The longer the Brexit crisis prevails the greater the cracks in the unity of the 27 member states and in the cohesion among the EU institutions."