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.