By Arab News
By Zaid M. Belbagi*
In an almost unbelievable turn of events, UK Prime Minister Theresa May hopes to bring her Brexit deal back to Parliament this week for a fourth attempt at gaining the backing of MPs. However, with a consensus far from certain, the UK faces the prospect of heading toward a general election during what has been described as its greatest peacetime crisis.
With the ruling Conservative Party split between MPs that support “Leave” and “Remain,” the PM took a gamble by hoping that several Leave-supporting Tory MPs who had previously opposed her deal would support it on the proviso that she no longer leads the party. Given that May was not an ideal choice at the outset, who will lead the party is important not only to the UK, but also to the EU, as whoever is at the helm will greatly affect the nature of the withdrawal.
Given Parliament’s repeated rejection of a withdrawal agreement that was negotiated over the course of 18 months between the UK and EU, the future of the relationship with the continent is far from certain. As things stand, the UK is on course for a no-deal Brexit. Controversial with both Parliament and the public, the prospect of leaving without a deal is harrowing. In the last week, however, the EU has said that it will consider a long extension to the Article 50 withdrawal process if, in light of the cataclysmic state of the UK government, Parliament can “indicate a way forward” before April 12 “for consideration by the European Council.”
Parliament will meet again on Monday to follow up on the various proposals raised last Wednesday. Given it is possible the withdrawal agreement, following Friday’s rejection, may soon be taken off the table for good, MPs who had waited to see if it would pass are now looking toward an election to break the deadlock. If no Parliamentary consensus is formed over the course of the “indicative votes” process on Monday, where various MPs will propose their own Brexit deals in the hope that the House can agree on a single deal that a majority of them support, the specter of a chaotic election grows ominous.
“I fear we are reaching the limits of this process in this House,” May told MPs following the defeat by 344 votes to 286 on Friday. The pound has suffered its worst month against the dollar since October. For the PM, like many, the veiled threat of an election may be the only option to break the Brexit deadlock.
Under a deal reached with the EU last week, Britain is now due to exit the bloc on April 12, which leaves no time to host a general election. Whilst the government is talking to the EU about the terms of another extension to Brexit, the prime minister received a letter late Friday signed by 170 Conservatives MPs — a majority, including at least 10 Cabinet members — urging her to stick with the April departure date. May has a poor track record when it comes to taking such political gambles, as Conservative MPs will recall that in 2017, she called a snap election in the hope of increasing her small majority, but instead she disastrously lost her majority entirely — a reality that has haunted her government in trying to pass Brexit policies in the House of Commons.
In any case, in the event that a Brexit deal is finalized, the Conservative Party will hold a leadership contest to decide who will replace May. As many as 12 candidates are expected to face-off for the position, with further rounds of voting narrowing down the candidates to just two. One of the presumed candidates is Boris Johnson, a polarizing figure in the UK and arguably the greatest proponent of the Leave campaign. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has also emerged as a rational candidate for many, but to some, having voted to Remain, his politics may be too far to the left at a time when the party needs to rally around one candidate.
Former Secretary of State for Exiting the EU Dominic Raab has emerged as a direct opponent to Johnson and his supporters have launched a social media campaign called “Ready for Raab,” positioning him as a “capable and fair” leader. Meanwhile, Environment Secretary Michael Gove’s political dexterity may well place him as moderate enough whilst having strong Leave credentials to draw support from across the party.
May has shown herself to be dedicated to doing her utmost to avoid the doomsday scenario of a no-deal exit and a general election. By offering to quit as prime minister so as to get her deal over the line, she has put the future of the country ahead of her political career — a rare commodity given the political opportunism of some of her rivals. In an uncommon display of optimism in very dire circumstances, leading pro-Brexit members of her party, including Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Raab, dropped their opposition to her proposal and voted for it on Friday. It is the hope of the entire country that this last-minute spirit of unity persists to avoid the calamity of a no-deal exit.
• Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid