Country before Party?
Ioannis Asimakopoulos (DCU Brexit Institute)
While preparations for a no-deal Brexit have intensified, while May’s deal has already been voted against twice, and with time running out, suddenly a glimpse of hope arose that a no-deal Brexit can be actually prevented. Ironically enough, it is not the parliament’s effort to reach a consensus on different Brexit scenarios that brought hope but rather party politics. Theresa May announced today her intention to resign under the condition that her deal would get through in a third meaningful vote, probably taking place on Friday. Shortly after, one Brexiteer after the other ran to express their support for May’s Brexit deal.
However, May’s intention to resign should not come as a surprise; in fact, it comes as a natural continuation of her own negotiation strategy. Theresa May has arguably made a fundamental negotiating mis-calculation from day one of the negotiations when she decided to put her party interests before the public interest, assuming that she could keep her party united, and that she could gain her party’s support on her deal. In this vein, for the past two years, May did not cross the aisle in order to build consensus with the opposition, but rather chose to manage Brexit as a conservative government majority issue.
Along the way, though, it became evident that delivering on the Brexit referendum was like trying to square the circle; getting a hard border while preserving the Good Friday agreement were by default mutually exclusive, thus it was impossible to satisfy all of her MPs. Nevertheless, she stood her ground, opting for party politics over consensus. This political deadlock led to the unprecedented constitutional event of the parliament taking control and essentially replacing the executive in defining the government’s policy. However, even this development, and the subsequent indicative votes that took place today do not seem to offer any clarity; instead, they seem to rather add to the existing political chaos.
In this context, her negotiation strategy combined with the objective challenges of getting a Brexit deal appealing to her MPs, amplified the tendency in both aisles to view Brexit as an effort to oust her from power. However, while Jeremy Corbyn would favour a general election, Tory MPs would much rather prefer May’s resignation. Ultimately, even at the eleventh hour, May has offered a way out of this political deadlock, ironically enough by choosing again party over country. By announcing her resignation upon the condition of getting her deal through she managed to unite her party and make Tory Brexiteers back her deal. Besides, at this point it was rather unlikely that Labour MPs would offer the support she so desperately sought after, and thus changing her strategy was deemed to fail. In other words, she became a victim of her own game.
Looking towards the future, the question is whether this announcement will offer a solution by having May’s deal accepted and removing once and for all the no-deal scenario. The DUP has yet to change its stance, still insisting on voting against the deal. Without the DUP’s support, and assuming that Labour MPs would not provide the required votes, May’s deal will fail once again to get parliamentary approval. Put differently, May’s resignation announcement has yet to offer any clarity as to what lies ahead. If May’s deal gets accepted then the indicative votes will be irrelevant. If May’s deal is rejected once more, then the no-deal Brexit scenario becomes even more likely. In fact, the existing uncertainty is reflected also on the sterling’s exchange rate; May’s announcement today sparked no reaction in the markets meaning that either her resignation was expected or that her resignation is not perceived as a definite game-changer.
The final outcome following May’s announcement will ultimately define how Theresa May will be viewed in the eyes of history; as a victim of her own game, as a great stateswoman, or both? Indeed, she has offered her resignation for the greater good; preventing a no-deal Brexit. But at the same time, she has persistently put her party’s interest above the public interest. Perhaps luckily for her, party and country are surprisingly aligned today.
Ioannis Asimakopoulos is a Research Fellow at the DCU Brexit Institute