Wednesday 24 April 2019

John Rentoul: 'May is finished - but her departure will only make Brexit riddle harder to solve'

Failure: Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May leaves Downing Street in London yesterday. Photo: Henry Nicholls/Reuters
Failure: Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May leaves Downing Street in London yesterday. Photo: Henry Nicholls/Reuters

John Rentoul

That, then, is the end of Theresa May. She may get to serve longer as prime minister than Gordon Brown, whom she will overtake on May 28, but that will be that.

All political careers end in failure, but she never really had any success.

As prime minister, she had one job: "Brexit means Brexit and we're going to make a success of it," she said. Now it turns out that Brexit means something else and she has given up.

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The significance of what she said on Wednesday evening has not yet sunk in. "As prime minister, I am not prepared to delay Brexit any further than June 30," she said in the House of Commons and repeated in her broadcast to the nation. That means that if the House of Commons rejects the Brexit deal again next week, she is going to resign.

This is because Donald Tusk, the EU Council president, said the EU would agree to a short delay only if the UK parliament approved the deal.

If parliament votes against the deal, the EU is likely to offer a long extension to the Brexit timetable, such as to the end of the year. I do not believe it would refuse an extension, because then the EU27 would be responsible for forcing a disruptive no-deal Brexit.

And I do not believe that May would try to take the UK out of the EU without a deal next Friday, or that parliament would allow her to do so.

So, if the Commons votes against the deal next week, whoever is prime minister will have to agree a long delay to Brexit with the EU. Theresa May says that won't be her - although she could agree the extension and announce her resignation at the same time.

Or she could change her mind and decide that, as prime minister, she is prepared to delay Brexit further than June 30 after all.

It wouldn't be the first time she said one thing and did another, but we are approaching the point where the cabinet could simply decide that one of its number should take over temporarily.

This could all be a cunning plan on May's part to engineer such a crisis of uncertainty that MPs feel they have to vote for the deal and an orderly exit, only briefly delayed, next week. Although it seems more likely that she is losing control of events and knows that she cannot survive if Brexit is delayed for so long that the UK has to hold European Parliament elections.

Either way, I think it is unlikely that she can win the vote next week. Even before Labour MPs decided to take offence at her Downing Street speech last night, in which she tactlessly but accurately said, "so far parliament has done everything possible to avoid a choice", the prospect of enough of them switching to vote for the deal seemed remote.

In which case, I think Britain is heading for a new prime minister and a long delay to Brexit.

There are other possibilities. The UK may leave next Friday, without a deal, if one EU leader vetoes an extension and parliament finds itself unable to cancel Brexit by legislating to revoke the Article 50 notice.

Or parliament may suddenly vote for a softer Brexit, if Jeremy Corbyn offers to support a deal including a permanent customs union hastily added to the non-binding political declaration. Would he really save May's premiership?

The probable outcome of May's likely defeat in "meaningful vote 3" seems to me that she announces her resignation, and the Conservative Party elects a successor while Brexit is put on hold. Then we really are into the unpredictable.

The bookies have Boris Johnson as the favourite in an unusually wide field. A lot of Tory MPs tell me they won't allow him on to the shortlist of two names who would be put to the members for the final choice.

But it is not easy to manipulate the Tory leadership election rules in that way.

What seems probable is that the Tory members - a small but not particularly aged group, average age 57, only four years older than the average Labour member - would choose the more Eurosceptic of the final two candidates.

That means someone who advocates leaving the EU without a deal. Which is a position supported at most by 204 MPs out of 638.

Theresa May's departure is not going to make the Brexit riddle any easier to solve. (© Independent News Service)

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