LONDON - Embattled British Prime Minister Theresa May has just eight days before the House of Commons votes on a contentious deal that would have Britain locked in a customs union with the European Union for several years while it negotiates a more permanent, but vaguely defined, free-trade settlement with its largest trading partner.
In the temporary customs union, Britain would be unable to influence the rules, regulations and product standards it would have to observe. It would be unable to sign free trade deals with non-EU countries. And with Northern Ireland treated differently than other parts of Britain in order to avoid customs and immigration checks on the border with the Republic of Ireland, the province’s pro-British Unionists fear their ties with London will be diminished.
As the December 11 vote draws closer, May’s prospects of convincing the House of Commons the exit Withdrawal Agreement she concluded is “the best deal for Britain” look increasingly forlorn. She heads a minority government that for its survival relies on the support of a quirky, socially conservative Northern Ireland Party, the DUP, which is threatening to withdraw support.
Each of her several appearances before the House of Commons since the agreement was signed with EU leaders last month has encountered levels of hostility seldom seen toward a sitting prime minister, with the greatest fury coming from her own Conservative Party lawmakers.
Monday’s appearance was not helped by the leak of a letter from her chief and most trusted negotiator, Oliver Robbins, warning that her temporary customs arrangement with the EU, which is planned to kick in on March 29, would be a “bad outcome” for Britain. He cautioned the deal could lead to regulatory checks having to be introduced between Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain.
He added that Britain might be trapped in the transition deal indefinitely with no legal way out of the customs union if free trade negotiations subsequently fail.
“When even the architect of this agreement appears to be saying this is a bad deal, colleagues must seriously question how they can vote for this,” said former Conservative minister Priti Patel.
On Monday, May was facing uproar in the House of Commons over her refusal to publish the full legal advice offered by the government’s lawyers on her deal. Only a summary has been released, but the suspicion is the advice included considerable reservations.
Conspiracies and intrigues are in the air, with rebel Conservative lawmakers debating their Brexit tactics and strategy. The one thing uniting them, whether they are Euro-skeptic or pro-EU, is opposition to May’s deal.
One group is preparing for the consequences of a no-deal vote by fashioning an alternative that would see Britain being half-in and half-out of the EU by adopting the Norway approach and joining the European Free Trade Association, a looser form of economic and political affiliation. Current EFTA members are Switzerland, Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland.
‘Straight off the cliff’
May adamantly rejected Sunday the idea of EFTA membership as an alternative if her deal fails to get sufficient parliamentary backing. That prompted former Conservative minister Nick Boles to warn May the deal is bound to be voted down, and the only other option she seems to be entertaining is “to do a Thelma and Louise and drive straight off the cliff into the sunset.”
EFTA membership is a non-runner for hardline Brexiters among conservatives, as it would require Britain to accept once again freedom of movement that allows EU and EFTA citizens to live and work in any member country.
But hardline Conservative Brexiters don’t fear falling off the cliff. Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, David Davis, one of May’s former Brexit ministers, the first of three who resigned in the past two years, said “if it happens, it isn’t the doomsday scenario some are trying to paint,” as it would allow Britain to “take back control and set ourselves on the path to reclaiming independence.”
British businesses that rely on integrated EU-wide supply chains for parts and supplies don’t agree. Neither does the Bank of England, which last week warned a disorderly no-deal Brexit would plunge Britain’s economy into an economic contraction, with a possible sharp rise in unemployment, house prices plummeting 30 percent, and the economy shrinking by around 8 percent in a year.
Meanwhile, Labor Party leaders are debating whether they should push for a second Brexit referendum or try to trigger an election by offering a motion of no confidence in May’s government, if the House of Commons withholds approval of her deal.
May is gambling the risk of a general election being triggered and of Labor winning under the leadership of the most far-left leader it has had since the 1930s will persuade conservative rebels and the DUP to hold their noses and approve her deal on December 11. But the DUP’s leader said May’s deal is a greater threat to Northern Ireland.
May's aides say if she loses next week’s vote by a small margin, she could return to Brussels and ask for changes and seek a second vote on the deal.