'MPs don't know what they want to do': Q&A on UK's Brexit crisis

As a tumultuous week in British politics draws to a close, Brexit expert Anand Menon discusses what might happen next.

    London, United Kingdom – Former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson once said a week is a long time in politics.

    This week, the UK’s ongoing political drama over the country’s bid to depart the European Union has stretched that maxim to its fullest.

    On Monday, Prime Minister Theresa May pulled a parliamentary vote on her widely criticised Brexit deal scheduled for the following day, acknowledging it would have been roundly rejected.

    She instead opted to go to Brussels and other European cities in a bid to win assurances from her EU counterparts over the withdrawal plan’s contentious backstop proposal.

    But while she was away, disgruntled eurosceptic members of her ruling Conservative Party moved to trigger a vote of confidence on her leadership, which she survived during a secret ballot on Wednesday evening.

    By Thursday, May was back in Brussels for an EU council summit and pleading once more with European leaders to concede ground on the backstop clause.

    Throughout the melee, EU officials have maintained there will be no renegotiation of the divorce deal, which is now due to be put to a vote in the UK’s lower chamber, the House of Commons, in early January.

    Al Jazeera spoke to Brexit expert Anand Menon, a professor of European politics and foreign affairs at King’s College London, to try and make sense of the ongoing maelstrom and get an idea of where the Brexit process may be heading next as the UK approaches its EU departure date on March 29.

    Al Jazeera: Will May’s plan to delay the parliamentary vote on her Brexit deal until January work?

    Anand Menon: Well, it doesn’t look like May will get much help out of this ongoing EU council summit, but there has been talk of another summit in January, and things can change very quickly. The passage of time between now and January could cool tempers and give people time to reflect and it might be that the numbers in parliament shift.

    But May is going to have to bring this deal back with or without amendments to it. She is going to have to hope that even if she loses the vote first time around [in parliament], she loses by an acceptable enough margin that she can give it another week or so after and then bring it back again.

    The clever money now, although you wouldn’t put money anywhere near this, is that it is very hard to see how this withdrawal agreement passes through parliament.

    Al Jazeera: Why is the backstop clause in the divorce deal so contentious?

    Menon: For several reasons. In a sense, the withdrawal deal contains two sorts of backstop. There’s an all-UK backstop and a Northern Ireland-only backstop.

    The problem with the all-UK backstop – the customs territory proposal and the associated level-playing field conditions – is that for Brexiteers, it leaves the UK tied to EU laws and will limit the country’s ability to strike trade deals outside of the bloc. They don’t like that because they believe it essentially means the UK gets Brexit in name only and see it as a betrayal of the referendum.

    The other thing they don’t like about it is even with the all-UK backstop, and particularly with the Northern Ireland-only backstop, Northern Ireland would be governed by some EU rules that wouldn’t apply to the rest of the UK. They see that as the start of the breakup of the union.

    So it’s those reasons. It’s a unity of the union argument and a purity of Brexit argument.

    Al Jazeera: What assurances does May need to win from EU leaders to satisfy parliament and win support for her withdrawal plan?

    Menon: Ideally, she would need to get rid of the backstop entirely but that’s not going to happen. The second best she can hope for is some language on the backstop of the kind that it seems they deleted last night [at the EU council summit]. The EU seems to have hardened their line after talking to her [in Brussels on Thursday].

    But she needs something, because I think there are a significant number of conservative MPs who are looking for an excuse to support her. So, any language on the backstop, however tokenistic, will help.

    The other thing the EU could do, which would be useful for May, is to help her quash the idea that there is a better deal waiting to be had.

    There are many MPs who are opposing the deal not because they don’t want Brexit or they want a no-deal Brexit but because they think they could get a better deal. 

    Al Jazeera: The UK’s main opposition Labour Party has threatened to put forward a parliamentary motion of no confidence in the prime minister. Why haven’t they done so yet?

    Menon: There are two reasons why Labour is holding off.

    One is because they think they would lose. Labour’s best tactic for now is to stay out of sight and let the Conservatives fight among themselves. There is a calculation in the party that the best time to have a confidence vote is after Theresa May’s deal has failed to win parliament’s support.

    Then they might get pro-remain Conservative MPs to back the no confidence vote because they are terrified of a no-deal Brexit.

    But the other reason Labour is holding off on this is because if it calls the vote and loses it, they will have their bluff called on whether to call for a second referendum.

    Al Jazeera: How likely is it that there will be a second referendum or general election before March 29, when the UK is scheduled to formally leave the EU?

    Menon: Quite likely. All outcomes look roughly equal now in terms of likelihood because MPs don’t know yet what they want to do.

    The problem is there are several things going on at once: there is a minority government, the most divisive issue parliament has arguably ever had to deal with, and a host of constitutional issues around Northern Ireland and Scotland [which voted in favour of remaining in the EU] in the air.

    Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity 

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