Brexit: May's toughest week
With just months left for the UK's withdrawal from the European Union, there is little clarity on the terms of its exit, or indeed whether the verdict of the 2016 referendum can be honoured at all. Instead, Prime Minister Theresa May's government is facing a possible vote of no confidence, orchestrated by her own deeply divided Conservative Party, over the modalities of a future relationship with the EU. At the heart of this bitter dispute is the withdrawal deal with the other 27 nations in the bloc, which would leave the country largely bound to current regulations, with diminished influence over policy formulation. Brussels has indicated broad agreement over its terms, which are to be formalised at an EU summit this month. But Ms. May's government faces an uphill task to secure parliamentary approval for the deal in the wake of a spate of resignations by senior Cabinet colleagues in the last few days. Notable among them are the prominent pro-Europe Transport Minister Jo Johnson, brother of the principal Leave campaigner Boris Johnson, who stepped down in July; and Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab. The latter's exit, as that of his predecessor David Davis, underscores the extent to which Ms. May's blueprint for an exit has proved controversial even among Conservative eurosceptic Ministers and MPs. Even those pro- Brexit Ministers who have chosen to stick with Ms. May are anxious that the terms of withdrawal be altered. This group recognises the importance of a soft border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. But they are opposed to the proposed compromise arrangement in return, which could lock Britain into a customs union with the EU for an indefinite period and constrain its ability to strike trade deals.
The unfolding Conservative leadership crisis could trigger a general election, a prospect the Labour Party has been eyeing ever since Ms. May formed a minority government after the 2017 polls. That danger also means she could yet rally support for the draft withdrawal deal among Conservative backbenchers anxious to avoid an election. Her failure to win parliamentary backing for the exit deal would raise the risk of a no-deal Brexit, with potentially chaotic ramifications. Both the U.K. and the EU know that averting such a nightmare is in their mutual interest. For that reason, it is conceivable that the 27 other states will see wisdom in deferring the March 29 deadline for withdrawal, should a request be put forward. Such a scenario would strengthen the case for a second referendum, articulated most eloquently by former Prime Minister John Major and echoed in a public demonstration in London. Meanwhile, growing uncertainties over Britain's future on the global stage only expose the hollowness of the Leave campaign and the fragility of its leadership.