Three weeks have passed, and we’re back at ‘Plan B’.
After months of pushing an EU-backed deal that has almost no chance of passing Parliament (at least, as of now), Theresa May’s strategizing as she seeks to run out the clock until Brexit day has come to resemble a nightmarish loop: May tries to whip up votes for her deal, MPs either resign, or threaten to resign, reports are floating saying May and her cabinet are considering a second referendum/Plan B/calling off Brexit, those reports are promptly denied, May begs the EU for more concessions, the EU tells her to drop dead, and then we’re back to whipping up votes for the draft plan.
Theresa May has been stuck in neutral for weeks now, having survived a no confidence vote, and Labour having backed down on a formal challenge to her government, May has called for a vote on her deal on Jan. 14 – a vote that, though the margin has reportedly been whittled to just 20 MPs, is still widely expected to fail.
And as May’s minority government struggles to win the support of the 10 DUP MPs who have helped prop up her minority government (and who have exercised an outsize influence on the process since May’s general election gambit last summer resulted in disaster for the conservatives), reports are again circulating that May & Co. are considering a variety of “dramatic” alternatives should her deal be defeated – including a possible Plan B Brexit deal that would lay the foundation for a ‘Super Norway’ trade arrangement, delaying ‘Brexit Day’ or calling for a second referendum.
Theresa May’s senior team are wrestling with the same question: What should she do if her deal is thrown out? In private, the options on the table are dramatic and include postponing the divorce from the European Union, calling another referendum or even announcing fresh national elections.
In under 100 days, the U.K. is due to leave the EU, fulfilling the mandate of the 2016 referendum and marking the culmination of two years of negotiations between London and Brussels. There is one massive obstacle standing in the prime minister’s path: Parliament won’t go along with the terms she’s agreed.
May is trying everything she can to win support among increasingly suspicious lawmakers for the unpopular divorce settlement she’s negotiated. She was forced to pull out of a vote on it on Dec. 11 and has now rescheduled the ballot for the week of Jan. 14.
In public, May and all her ministers are adamant that her exit deal is the only one available to avoid potential economic and social chaos. They are putting all their efforts into winning the vote in Parliament.
Behind closed doors, her inner circle is discussing the options if she fails.
Indeed, reading between the lines of the anonymously sourced trial balloons and May’s public remarks has become a skill in and of itself.
Reading between the lines of what May says is key to trying to understand the latest thinking of a prime minister who’s U-turned in the past to get out of a political bind. May’s most recent comment doesn’t rule out a change of heart.
First, there is the idea that while now might not be the time to seek an extension, it could be necessary later. Secondly, she implies that if Parliament fails to deliver Brexit by backing the deal, someone else — perhaps the British electorate — could be asked to decide.
May’s officials have sought to play down reports in recent days that there could be another referendum. Her office has made public that she will not countenance a rerun of the 2016 vote for as long as she’s in power. But people familiar with the matter are clear that May herself might not be in a position to decide.
One cudgel that May is trying to wield is the notion that, if her deal is voted down, it could give Labour an opening to force through another general election by calling, and winning, a no confidence vote in the government. The fear of Corbyn winning power could be enough to win support for May’s deal from some Brexiteers.
They know that if her deal is ultimately voted down, the campaign for a second referendum will gain momentum. One way of stopping that would be to trigger an election. That’s a threat some in May’s government are using to try to persuade the small party propping up her minority administration to come back on board.
May’s team believes this argument could be particularly effective in winning over the DUP, which opposes the current Brexit deal over the backstop, which it fears could lead to the UK becoming a ‘vassal’ state of the EU by leaving it permanently bound to the EU customs union.
Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party won’t want an election, in part because it brings closer the threat of a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn.
But the DUP is at the moment vowing to oppose the deal May has secured with the EU. Without the party’s support, May has no majority in the House of Commons. The DUP says it is ready to vote against May and bring down her government unless major changes can be made to the Brexit deal.
The premier and her ministers are mounting a charm offensive to woo the DUP, while May is engaged in a desperate attempt to persuade the EU to shift position on the most contentious part of the divorce package.
If the DUP come back on side, May’s team believes it’s possible that enough of her own Tories – who have also pledged to vote against the deal – will also sign up to give the accord a slim chance of surviving.
If all else fails, there’s always “Project Fear”, the latest iteration of which appeared in the Times of London Friday in a report that warned Britons to prepare to ‘change their diets’ to cope with possible food shortages following a ‘no deal’ Brexit (while the government doesn’t expect wholesale food shortages, certain perishable goods like fruits and vegetables might be harder to come by).
Officials are planning to tell Britons to change what they eat in the event of a chaotic Brexit because Whitehall predicts that some sources of fresh food from European Union countries would be cut off. The government has begun detailed planning on food supplies if Britain leaves without a deal and has identified a number of sites for massive hangars to stockpile food, including one near Carlisle and others in Scotland and on the south coast.
According to plans revealed to The Times, officials do not believe there will be a shortage of food in general. However, there is an issue with some perishable goods that come from the EU. Fruit from Spain or vegetables from the Netherlands could be held up by delays at the border if the EU limits trade or there need to be stringent checks.
With the path forward so muddled, there’s still plenty of room for unexpected twists and turns (like May resigning or being pushed out, despite surviving her Tory leadership contest). Though one thing is looking increasingly clear: Whatever happens, it likely won’t happen until the very last minute.
In fact, one ministers’ invocation of a classic Winston Churchill quote offers a dishearteningly apt evaluation of May’s negotiating strategy (which her European peers recently criticized as “chaotic” and “disorganized”:
“The Conservative Party on Brexit puts me in mind of what what Winston Churchill said about the Americans,” the minister said. “You can always count on them to do the right thing – after they have tried everything else.”