As the damp English winter sets in, the outlook on Brexit is as fogbound as it has been since the referendum in June 2016. Yet it would be presumptuous to bin last Thursday’s draft deal as “26 pages of waffle”, as did the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn. On her part, Theresa May is acutely aware that she currently lacks the numbers to win approval for her deal.
The legislature, therefore, may yet be the major impediment to thwart the executive’s agenda on 21st century British and European history. Which is why the latest document can scarcely inspire optimism, yet it does deserve to be given a try. At best, the British Prime Minister could use it to encourage MPs to support her plan. By that yardstick, the draft is another step in her uphill battle to assemble an elusive majority to get her Brexit deal through parliament. It is still work in progress.
The question-and-answer session in the Commons, soon after her return from the EU headquarters in Brussels, was notable for two reasons. Markedly, for all the ebullience of Mr Corbyn, Labour and the other opposition parties were onlookers in the main. Second, the focus was on Tory versus Tory, so to speak, and occasionally between Mrs May and the DUP. It was more of a negotiating session between Tory backbenchers and the Prime Minister.
It was clear that Mrs May has softened her stand on Northern Ireland in an effort to swing influential Brexiters like Iain Duncan Smith and Owen Paterson to accept her deal. Overall, the Prime Minister has conveyed the impression that she is determined to turn the screws on longtime hard Brexiters in the Conservative party. The options remain open. Beyond this tentative conclusion, further comment must await the unfolding of developments. Nonetheless, the strategy is clear. There is little doubt that Mrs May has given an impetus to her resolve to counter her Brexit detractors.
She will try to tighten that pressure with confrontation over fishing with France and over Gibraltar with Spain. The timing of Mrs May’s announcement is crucial, specifically ahead of Sunday’s Brussels summit during which the deal is scheduled to be signed, perhaps with certain changes. The other announcement that she is keen to make ~ this time in the House of Commons ~ is that she has delivered on Brexit and that it is time for the United Kingdom to move on. Not really.
The latest declaration is not a clear-cut programme of action; it is at best a robust signal of intent. Notably, it has deferred the resolution of such prickly issues as single-market access, Customs union alignment, and the ability to forge separate trade deals during the 21-month transition period after the UK leaves the EU next spring. The Northern Ireland border remains ever so contentious. Will Britain move on even if Mrs May wins the Commons vote? She does not have an answer. Another referendum could reverse Brexit altogether.