May goes to war over her Brexit deal and to keep her power

Lianna Brinded
Head of Finance, Yahoo Finance UK
UK prime minister Theresa May delivers a Brexit statement at Downing Street on November 14, 2018. Photo: Getty

Theresa May will not rest easy — her draft Brexit agreement and her position of power are on thin ice.

Despite saying on Wednesday evening that “the collective decision of Cabinet was that the government should agree the draft withdrawal agreement and the outline political declaration,” the agreement is nowhere near the finish line. 

While the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, hailed the draft deal as a crucial step towards a final deal, there are major hurdles that May needs to overcome. This includes getting all her party onside while also scraping together support from opposition politicians as well as supposed allies from Ireland.

May knows she’s got an intensive, bloody fight ahead of her and in her speech on Wednesday evening, she drew the battle plans and is preparing for war.

“When you strip away the detail the choice before us is clear. This deal, which delivers on the vote of the referendum, which brings us back control of our money, laws and borders, ends free movement, protects jobs, security and our union, or leave with no deal, or no Brexit at all,” she said.

“I know that there will be difficult days ahead… But the choice was this deal… or going back to square one, with more division, more uncertainty, and the failure to deliver on the referendum.”

But May has been losing the battle from the moment she gained power and now it is seeming all the more inevitable that the fate of Brexit and her premiership are up in the air.

The prime minister and Tory leader no one voted for 

Former UK prime minister David Cameron chairing the first cabinet meeting following a ministerial re-shuffle in 2015. Photo: Reuters

Fears over another snap general election have been growing over the past few months. This has mainly stemmed from the chaos brewing within the Tory party since David Cameron stepped down as party leader and prime minister.

The Tories, up until the Brexit referendum in June 2016, had been growing in support and power. There is usually a general election every five years and in order to win an overall majority, a party has to win 326 seats out of the 650 seats available.

In 2010, the Tories gained 97 seats from before, bringing their total to 307. While it wasn’t enough to win an outright majority, it created a coalition with the Liberal Democrats’ 57 seats in order to be in power. While the coalition was disastrous for the Lib Dems, it provided further firepower for the Tories when the next general election came about in 2015.

That year, the Lib Dems only won eight seats but the Tories scooped up a further 24, giving it the ability to rule the country with a majority of 331. A majority also means that if items need to be pushed through parliament, the ruling party would only really need their own MPs to support it. Otherwise, if you had less than a majority, you’d have to persuade MPs from other parties to support the item to get proposals pushed through.

READ MORE: How does a leadership challenge to a Conservative prime minister work?

But things took a turn for the worse for the Tories the following year. Cameron, George Osborne and May, who was Home Secretary at the time, were all Remainers. But when Britain voted to leave the EU in the June 2016 referendum, Cameron stepped down and opened up his premiership to a fierce and dirty leadership challenge, populated by mainly staunch Brexiteers and May. Those included Liam Fox, Michael Gove, and Andrea Leadsom — who, despite being lesser known or as experienced in front bench politics, was emerging as the front runner of the race.

The leadership challenge was a tough pill to swallow for a lot of people.

In any Conservative leadership contest only party members are allowed to vote, which means when Leadsom dropped out of the race, Theresa May became leader of her party and the country’s new prime minister – despite not having secured a mandate from the British public as a whole.

The unravelling of May and the Tories

Just as quickly as May rose to power in July 2016, her popularity has steadily declined. Cabinet resignations and ongoing dismay with Brexit negotiations have been part and parcel of what’s been happening for the last two or so years.

But when May’s hubris led her to call a snap general election in 2017, after only one year into the top job, things took a decided turn for the worse. Granted, polls showed that the Conservatives had a big lead over Britain’s main opposition Labour at the time, but the results were pretty disastrous for her government. While the Tories claimed 318 seats, the general election killed off the Conservatives’ power in government.

May now needed the Tories to team up with another party to form a coalition or confidence-and-supply agreement. The difference between the two is that a coalition is a more formal arrangement where those party ministers can expect to gain cabinet positions and be expected to support the main party overall in whichever way the PM is pushing to vote. The other one means that they don’t have to expect those cabinet positions and that those other party members could change their mind on supporting the bigger party’s legislative proposals.

There was no chance the Tories would team up with Labour or the Lib Dems, which meant May turned to a confidence-and-supply agreement with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party. Outside Ireland, so little was known about the DUP it was the most googled search term in the UK that year.

The repercussions for a decent Brexit deal

May invoked Article 50 on 29 March, 2017, and thus started the two-year countdown to the official day of Britain leaving the EU. Negotiations began – and to say the talks have been farcical and fraught would be considered by many as an understatement.

There has been little progress up until now due to the UK continually being batted down for cherry picking the bits they want from leaving the EU and cutting out the bits they don’t like — something EU officials have consistently said is not on the table.

Getting a deal has been a puzzle to solve — balancing out what to do with the Irish border, how to appease strident Brexiteers that want to stop the freedom of movement of people (the biggest reason for voting to leave the bloc), while also making sure that Britain’s economy doesn’t fall off a cliff.

A no-deal Brexit is the worst scenario, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as well as many other think tanks and investment banks have pointed out. The IMF warned last month that Brexit is one of the biggest risks for global financial stability and a no-deal Brexit is the worst thing that could happen.

However, through sheer desperation borne out of the fact Britain only has a little more than four months to go until it is meant to formally leave the EU, any deal on the surface might seem positive. But that is manifestly not true.

May paints herself in an impossible position

Photo: Reuters

And so we come to Downing Street on Wednesday night, where May said in her statement that there were three options — accept her deal, have no deal, or have no Brexit altogether.

And although this is the first concrete time she has presented cancelling Brexit as an option, this shouldn’t distract everyone right now.

Firstly, the deal May has put forward has caused friction in and out of her party and while she may have said on Wednesday evening that there was “the collective decision of cabinet that the government should agree the draft withdrawal agreement and the outline political declaration,” it does little to say that it skirts around confirming whether or not there was unanimous support within her own party.

Staunchest Brexiteers are seriously unhappy.  Jacob Rees-Mogg warned of the UK becoming a “vassal state” with Northern Ireland “being ruled from Dublin” over the agreement over an Irish backstop. And Remainer Tory MPs, like Justine Greening, said: “Even if some people in my party can’t see this is a bad deal, everyone else around this entire planet can.”

READ MORE: Where do Theresa May’s ministers stand on Brexit?

But May doesn’t have the luxury of concentrating on getting her own party’s politicians on side — she also needs to win over votes from the DUP (which earlier on Wednesday said that the deal would be a “very, very hard sell”) as well as politicians from Labour and the SNP. All of which will be discussed in parliament on Thursday. Labour has already said it is demanding they all should be allowed to amend the details of the deal if they want, while Ireland said it will vote on it in its own parliament. The EU has to also ratify whatever state the draft deal is in after that.

Even a no-deal wouldn’t necessarily appeal to Brexiteers (many still hope for a cherry picking option) and a Brexit cancellation could be considered political suicide. After all, Brits did vote, even by slim majority of 52%, to leave the EU.

Appetite for a second Brexit referendum has been gaining momentum but that would mean the nightmare may kick off again if the vote is still in favour of a Brexit.

May’s days are numbered

When the draft bill was announced on Tuesday evening, former Conservative party leader Iain Duncan Smith suggested May’s administration could collapse over the deal. He said “if the Cabinet agrees it, the party certainly won’t.” He added that “almost certainly, yes” when asked if the government’s days were numbered.

He has a point. May has been smattered by dismay from within her own party for the length of premiership. It has been so prolific that rumours of a new leadership bid and MPs drafting a vote of no confidence in here are frequent.

On 29 October, a survey by respected pollsters Ipsos Mori showed that her popularity is pretty abysmal and that’s hurting the Tories as well. The British public are pretty fed up with her:

Chart: Ipsos Mori

This was emphasised further when you compare the popularity of May’s government over Cameron’s cabinet.

Chart: Ipsos Mori

The fact that under her leadership the Tories have gone from a party with a majority government to one that has to now beg for votes from the opposition to pass a deal that no one seems to want is a painful state of affairs for the Conservatives. If another leadership contest was announced and heralded a collapse within the party, another general election could be likely.

However, its looking uncertain whether the Tories would survive that considering voting intentions put the Conservatives and Labour neck-and-neck:

Chart: Ipsos Mori

All-in-all, it’s a bleak outlook for May and her party. While it’s not certain how Brexit is going to pan out, what is certain is that May is hanging on to power by her fingernails.