Brexit: the impossible job? A guide to the roadblocks facing the PM

Political discussions on Brexit don’t often bring the house down but Labour MP Rachel Maskell could hardly contain herself on Wednesday when she appeared on BBC2’s Daily Politics show. Interviewer Andrew Neil was pummelling trade minister Greg Hands with questions about policy on the customs union. Hands flannelled and fudged. After repeated, failed attempts to penetrate the fog, Neil exploded: “Have you any idea what you are talking about?”, complaining that none of his questions had elicited the merest hint of an answer. Hands said he was the trade minister so he should know what he was talking about. “That is what worries me,” Neil barked back. Maskell, who had herself been subject to tough interrogation on Labour Brexit policy, sat between the two, unable to conceal her amusement.

The next day at business questions in the Commons, Andrea Leadsom, the leader of the house, was trying to answer MPs’ inquiries about the parliamentary timetable. Her opposite number, Labour’s Valerie Vaz, adopted an exasperated tone, wanting to know when the data protection bill would finally come before MPs. And – in the week that marked 100 years since women won the right to vote – was it not also time for the government to give its overdue response to a report on women’s equality? Was Brexit the only issue this government thought about?

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Both episodes highlight the deepening problems engulfing Theresa May and her divided party and government. Brexit is the subject around which all political discussion revolves, and on which most ministerial and parliamentary energy is spent. The other main hot political topic for debate at Westminster is over May’s chances of survival. That, of course, is intimately bound up with her ability to see Brexit through.

May’s party and government is split to such an extent that progress has become tortuously slow on the central mission. There is a sense of drift just as the real business of Brexit needs to be done. Without a parliamentary majority since the June election, May cannot lead without upsetting one side or other of the Tory European divide. Hands’s discomfort was caused by fear of coming down on one side or other on the critical issue of the customs union. So he said nothing at all. A government source said later that Hands was just saying “what Number 10 told him to do”. Nothing.

“She is just swinging between the positions of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Anna Soubry and stops somewhere in the middle,” says former Labour minister Chris Leslie.

Amid rumours that Tory MPs on both sides of the party’s ideological divide have sent letters to Graham Brady – chairman of the powerful 1922 Committee – demanding a vote of confidence in May, a veteran Tory backbencher said her only possible survival strategy was one of cautious equivocation at a time when decisive leadership was urgently required. “Her trouble is that if she moves in one direction she triggers ten more names to Brady, if she moves in the other direction she also triggers 10 more letters to Brady. So when we need to have a clear plan for Brexit, for the country, and for business, we have exactly the opposite. Paralysis.”

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Indecision and evasion can only work for so long. In the next few weeks the prime minister could find herself defeated in both houses of parliament over key elements of her Brexit policy. It is likely that the Lords will pass amendments backing the UK’s permanent membership of the customs union. It could also ask for membership of the single market to be kept on the table. The Commons could then follow suit and back customs union membership for good, not least to solve Irish border issues that are among the most potentially explosive in the entire Brexit debate.

This would be a severe blow to the prime minister’s core hard-Brexit strategy. The right of her party would be furious, seeing Brexit slipping away, and might plot to remove her. But the hard-Brexit ideologues are also divided on the matter of who to replace her with – Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Jacob Rees-Mogg. Neither are they certain that a change would really help their cause.

Another catalyst for a parliamentary revolt against hard Brexit could be the 3 May local elections, when the Tories are likely to be routed in London and other cities. Heavy losses will spell more trouble as Tory MPs would fear an emergency Brexit-induced general election. In the meantime, May needs to have finalised arrangements for the two-year transition with the EU in time for a 22 March EU summit. That now looks unlikely. Relations between EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier and Brexit secretary David Davis hit a new low on Friday. Barnier is rejecting UK demands – ones that May has been forced to table by hardline Brexiters – that the UK should be able to block EU laws during the transition. The idea of a country that has just chosen to leave the EU wanting access to all its markets after departing but also wanting the right to block the 27 members from changing their rules has not gone down well in Brussels. There are now fears that the talks on the next phase – the post transition “end state” – will have to be delayed, casting the whole timetable into doubt.

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Charles Grant, director of independent thinktank the Centre for European Reform, said: “There is a growing sense in Brussels that because the British are raising new difficulties on the transition, it will not be possible to agree it at the March summit.”

Lack of clarity on what the UK wants for the long term, Grant added, creates a risk that the EU will just dictate the terms of discussions from now on. “The longer the British delay saying what they want in terms of a future relationship, the greater the danger that the EU imposes something very narrow like a Canada-style agreement.”

From Brussels, the state of the UK government and the Brexit debate is viewed with incomprehension. Fabian Zuleeg, chief executive of the Brussels-based European Policy Centre thinktank, said: “The EU 27 and the institutions have watched the political chaos in the UK with a sense of disbelief and frustration. There seems to be a profound inability to come up with realistic negotiating positions, and a constant tendency for even the most limited agreements to be immediately undermined and recanted by the media, members of parliament and/or government ministers.”

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A final deal on the terms of withdrawal is due by October this year, but that now looks optimistic. Few expect all the detail to have been hammered out by then, given that the UK has yet to provide the EU with firm details of the relationship it wants. The Labour MEP Richard Corbett, a former senior adviser in Brussels, predicts that there may only be a “minimalist withdrawal agreement that takes us out but leaves all key issues to be settled later during the transition period”. The Brexit process, he believes, is way behind schedule because of UK indecision, May’s caution and her divided party.

Nicky Morgan, fired as education secretary by May in 2016 and now Tory chair of the Treasury select committee, said delay and slippage would be bad for everyone: “If the transition discussions slip, then presumably so does the chance of getting a final agreement that parliament can vote on in autumn 2018.

“The uncertainty about what happens in March 2019 isn’t good for anyone, particularly businesses and EU citizens. It only increases the chances of a disorderly Brexit. This cannot be what the government wants.” Least of all Theresa May, if she is able to survive that long.

Jeremy Corbyn et al. posing for the camera: Jeremy Corbyn in Hebden Bridge.
© Provided by Guardian News & Media Limited Jeremy Corbyn in Hebden Bridge.
Much of Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow Cabinet want him to back permanent customs union membership.Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images

Possible pitfalls facing the PM
Lords revoltFebruary

The committee stage of the European Union withdrawal bill begins in the House of Lords later this month. Ten days have been allocated for what will be fiery debates. Cross-party groups of peers will vote on a range of amendments that could torpedo the prime minister’s plans for Brexit.

Some pro-EU Tories will back amendments saying the UK should stay in the single market and customs union for good. Other amendments would delete the commitment to a firm date for Brexit (currently set as 29 March 2019).

There will also be calls for a second referendum on the final deal. The most likely trouble will be over the customs union. If the Lords pass any of these amendments, the Commons, where there is also a majority for a soft Brexit, may follow suit and May’s authority will be seriously damaged.

Labour shifts


A defeat for May, which sees parliament commit to permanent membership of the customs union, is much more likely if Labour officially changes tack and backs the policy. Currently, Labour supports staying in both the customs union and single market during the transition period only.

Much of Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, including shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer, below, want him to back permanent customs union membership, not least to solve border issues in Northern Ireland. Corbyn has called a special shadow cabinet “away day” for later this month to decide. If he shifts on the customs union, Labour MPs and pro-EU Tories will join the SNP and Lib Dems in votes in the Commons in April or May. Defeat on the customs union will show May does not have parliament’s backing and cannot deliver hard Brexit.

Transition row


A crunch summit of the 28 EU leaders is supposed to sign off on a final arrangement on a two-year transition, or implementation period, after Britain leaves in 2019. The other 27 EU leaders are also due to agree a mandate for negotiating the post-transition relationship between the UK and the EU.

But there is a growing belief in Brussels and London that neither may be achieved, delaying the entire Brexit timetable. May wants a transition in which trade between the UK and EU carries on as it does now, until 2021, with the UK continuing to accept EU rules and paying for market access.

Rightwing Tory MPs, led by Jacob Rees-Mogg, below, are throwing in late objections, wanting assurances that there will be no new Brussels laws in the transition period that could damage the UK. Michel Barnier, the EU chief negotiator, is resisting that idea.

Business despairs

End of March

Business leaders have set the end of March as the deadline by which the government must be clear on the transition arrangements, warning that if it fails to deliver clarity, companies will activate contingency plans.

The British Chambers of Commerce is increasingly vocal, as members despair over cabinet divisions. In a letter to May last week, director general Adam Marshall said: “Directly affected companies are poised to activate contingency plans. Many others, worryingly, have simply disengaged.”

Japan’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, Koji Tsuruoka, said after a meeting in Downing Street last week: “If there is no profitability of continuing operations in the UK … then no private company can continue operations.”

Toyota, Nissan, Honda? If they left, the impact on jobs would be devastating.

Tory rout in polls


The Conservatives are expected to be routed in London, and other big Remain-supporting cities, at local elections in May. Voting will be taking place against a background of the key votes in both houses of parliament on Brexit bills.

Already, Tory MPs are warning that unless the PM has asserted greater authority by 3 May and shown she is winning, then the “men in grey suits” could be dispatched to No 10 to call for her to go, or enough Tory MPs will call for a confidence vote, if and when bad results come in.

Boris Johnson and Michael Gove are already said to be thinking about what to do if there is a May meltdown. A former Tory cabinet minister said recently that he feared a wipeout in big cities, adding: “MPs think in two ways: what can I do to save my seat, and what’s in it for me? People will begin to manoeuvre over the leadership. There will be a degree of panic.”

Which deal?


By the summer, negotiations must be well underway on the long-term relationship between the EU and the UK. Relationships on items ranging from agriculture to the environment, security and drugs licensing, will have to be recast. The UK must make up its mind what it wants.

A relationship like Canada’s, which excludes services? Or like Norway’s, effectively still in the single market but outside the EU? There is no clarity beyond May’s call for a “deep and special partnership”. She wants “frictionless trade” with the EU but has no clear plan on how to achieve that.

European officials are tearing their hair out. The Irish government will want to see firm proposals on how the UK intends to avoid a return to a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, if it ends up outside the customs union. If Dublin is not satisfied, it could scupper any deal.

EU reacts

Late October

European leaders have to agree the shape of any deal and aim to do so by an October summit. To get agreement, they must agree by what is called a “stong majority”. Unanimity is not required – but, by that stage, consensus should be emerging. The deal also has to go to the European Parliament where it has to be approved by a simple majority of MEPs. If any large bloc of member states is unhappy – for example, if MEPs from central and eastern European states and other countries fear the implications of the deal for movement of workers – they could block it.

Under the Article 50 agreement, the deal does not need to be ratified by all individual member states, as a new Treaty does.

Watch out for the Irish, though, as if the package is not to Dublin’s liking, it could persuade other countries to stand in its way in the European Council.

MPs decide

By December

MPs will be able to vote on any final deal once it has been signed off by EU heads of government. But some EU leaders and UK ministers now think that all that will be achieved will be “heads of agreement” that fail to define the future relationship in detail.

This would mean the talking has to go on into the transition, when the focus should be on new trade deals. If a skeleton deal is put to the vote at Westminster, it may well not meet with the approval of either house. If a vote were lost on the deal – rejected as either damaging or too limited, or not good for jobs – May would be gone.

What then? Would the EU agree to delay Brexit day? The Institute of Government says: “It is unlikely a parliamentary No vote could stop Brexit altogether. For this to happen, the UK would need to attempt to revoke its article 50 notification.” All bets would be off.

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