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May 17, 2019

Towards the end of May

Did she or didn't she? We would agree with those who would mark yesterday as the day when Theresa May's premiership effectively ended. She will formally leave office at some point this summer. If her withdrawal agreement bill fails in early June, she will immediately announce her decision to step down, and trigger a leadership contest. If it passes, she will hang on for a little while longer. In that case the Tory leadership contest will take place after the summer, but in any case before the Tory party conference in late September. So, we are in a scenario where Boris Johnson could attend the October EU summit - the next big Brexit summit.

The big question to ask this morning is whether May's decision to agree to step down, in combination with the Brexit Party's increasingly likely landslide victory at the European elections, might open the door for her bill to pass. There is not a single observer who would predict it will. Nor do we. But beware of events intruding. 

What would happen, for example, if a member of the European Council were to threaten a veto of a further extension? What if people start to realise that Boris Johnson, who declared his candidacy yesterday, could actively conspire to let the UK crash out of the EU without a deal in October? We should recall that May did not put up any resistance to the Cooper bill that forced her to ask for an extension. No UK parliament bill could ever force the EU. As we kept pointing out during our coverage of the Brexit dramas earlier this year, the prime minister had several powers at her disposal to frustrate Cooper. She chose not to use them. 

Also consider that a new pro-Brexit Conservative leader would change the party's standing in the polls from one day to the next. The Tories would then become the Brexit party. Nigel Farage would be stuck in Brussels. Johnson would probably have to call elections. Could he win? Of course he could. You don't need 52% to win an election. If he could bring together the Leave vote, against a fragmented Remain opposition, he would get a thumping majority. Current opinion polls are dominated by the massive Brexit frustration among Tory voters.

The reason we are not yet declaring the death of May's deal is that Labour MPs and other soft-Brexiteers might still realise at a late stage that they take a big risk by voting against the deal. It will come in the form of an official bill. If rejected, it cannot be brought back during the current parliamentary term. We may have gotten used to May losing votes, but losing this one would be a bigger deal than some people may realise. 

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