29 Mar 2019

Theresa May makes renewed push for EU divorce deal

From Nine To Noon, 9:07 am on 29 March 2019

The British government is still doggedly trying to push through Theresa May's Brexit deal to a bitterly divided parliament. 

The parliament's seeming inability to agree means there's a fifty-fifty chance that the UK will crash out with no deal, says Helen Thomas, who was an adviser to the former Chancellor of the Exchequer and Conservative MP George Osborne.

An EU and a Union flag flutter near the Houses of Parliament in central London on March 27, 2019.

An EU and a Union flag flutter near the Houses of Parliament in central London on March 27, 2019. Photo: AFP

This Thursday, after May offered her own exit as the price of getting her withdrawal deal through, MPs rejected all of the alternative deals put forward to them in order to find a new way out of the deadlock.

The British Parliament is separated by both ideology and party, but yesterday’s events made the divide even starker.

Now, MPs will be asked to vote again, but only on part of the deal negotiated with the European Union.

They will vote on the withdrawal agreement, covering the Brexit divorce bill, citizen’s rights and the controversial Irish backstop.

But the UK’s future relationship with the EU will not be put to the vote.

The British parliament's seeming inability to get over this “hump in the road” means there's a fifty-fifty chance of the UK crashing out with no deal, says Helen Thomas, who was an adviser to the former Chancellor of the Exchequer and Conservative MP George Osborne.

And even if parliament does find a way through this current roadblock, the real negotiations are yet to come.

“It should be a warning sign, a real alarm bell, for anyone who thinks that on 12 April or at some stage in the near future, this will all be done and dusted.

“The truth of the matter is, the politicians are now all jockeying for what happens in phase two and who’s going to be the prime minister. Can it be them? Can it be their ally? They are all now trying to get their angle on this whether it’s their ideology, or whether it’s their personal ambition and that battle, that fight, is going on for the next two years.”

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May listen as opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn speaks in the House of Commons in London on March 25, 2019 after May outlined the next steps that parliament will take in the Brexit process.

Photo: AFP / PRU

Many of the alternative options that MPs voted on, and rejected, yesterday are all still possible, she says, once a divorce deal is agreed.

“Theresa May’s deal is just this divorce agreement. It’s not about where we are going to end up in the final days of our proper, full-on relationship with the EU – that’s all still to be discussed.

“A lot of the people who are arguing for a custom union, they could still potentially get to that path if they actually pass Theresa May’s deal.

“So there is quite a bit of signalling going on from our politicians rather than actually coming to a practical solution.”

The chances of May getting her deal through after it's been roundly rejected twice are not good, Thomas says.

“She has such a mountain to climb, the first time her vote was brought it was the biggest defeat in history for a government on a piece of legislation, so she had a huge deficit to try and get over. And although she made some progress the second time around, and we do expect more progress on this third occasion, it is such a large number of MPs that need to shift.

“I hate to use the word 'impossible', but it is very difficult to get that number of people to change their mind.”

The (Northern Irish) Democratic Unionist Party, who have ten votes in parliament and on whom Mrs May relies to govern, are adamant they will not back May's deal.

“They have quite clearly stated they will not be going for this, they won’t even abstain.

"[Democratic Unionist Party MP] Nigel Dodds said ‘we will not abstain on matters of the union’ and of course unionism is what it’s all about.”

The so-called Irish backstop remains the reason that the Democratic Unionist Party oppose May’s deal, Thomas says.

“This backstop would create a different set of rules for Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, which [the DUP] could never sign up to, so she will never get the ten votes.”

UK Parliament

UK Parliament Photo: AFP / Mark Duffy / UK Parliament

Since May's decision to call a snap election in 2017 and the subsequent loss of a Conservative majority, she is hamstrung, Thomas says.

“She’s already on the back foot. Not to mention members of her own party who will always be against the deal, either because they’re deeply Eurosceptic or in fact, there are some Remainer MPs of hers who don’t want to back it because they want to stay in the EU."

May’s promise to resign if her deal is passed won’t alter matters, Thomas says.

“The people who are still against her deal even if she leaves say it’s not the fact it’s Theresa May’s deal that’s the problem, it is the deal that is the problem.

“They believe it still gives too much away, it has this problem where it catches Northern Ireland and cuts them off from the UK, it leaves us potentially all in a customs union, it wouldn’t allow us to make new trade deals with others.”

Thomas doesn’t believe there is enough time left for parliament to untangle the problem.

“You have to sign this divorce deal to move on to the next stage. The next stage is supposed to be the transition period where you thrash out the final outcome of our relationship with Europe, which might look like Norway, it may well look like Norway or something very similar to it. But we’ve got this hump in the road that we just need to get over before we thrash it out.

"We are the biggest trading partner to the EU and vice versa. We are very interlinked as an economy, as cultures. No-one should have ever thought this was going to be quick or easy.”

A dramatic denouement may be the only thing that forces the British parliament’s hand, Thomas says.

“I can see a situation where technically we crash out and two days later everybody’s back in room thrashing something out, agreeing on it and we move forward. We all know realpolitik prevails at the end of the day.”