Suddenly, the chances of the United Kingdom staying in the European Union have risen sharply. Two resignations from the Cabinet of Prime Minister Theresa May earlier this week were not intended to have this effect. Both men, foreign secretary Boris Johnson and Brexit secretary David Davis, want a “hard” Brexit, meaning a clean and complete break with the European Union. But they have unleashed a chain of events that could well take the United Kingdom to the opposite destination.
Until Sunday night, May thought she had achieved something remarkable. Last Friday, she brought together her Cabinet ministers, who have varied and conflicting views on Brexit, for a daylong meeting. That evening, she announced the unanimous agreement from her Cabinet ministers for a “soft” Brexit, meaning that the United Kingdom would abide by most European Union rules and allow British companies to trade as easily with the European Union, and on effectively the same terms, as they do today.
The two resignations did not just shatter that unanimity. They were more significant than that. When May took office two years ago, she appointed three Cabinet ministers who were vital to the Brexit process. Johnson and Davis were two of those three ministers. The third is trade secretary Liam Fox, who remains in his post. Most Cabinet resignations these days leave minor scratches on the political body that soon heal. These two are deep wounds that continue hemorrhaging blood.
This has practical consequences that go beyond the psychodrama of the personalities involved. The most important is May’s negotiating hand in Brussels has now been weakened. Michel Barnier, chief negotiator for the European Union, knows this. He is likely to insist that if British businesses are to have favourable access to European Union markets after Brexit, the United Kingdom will have to go further to sign up to the rules of the Customs Union and Single Market, pay billions of euros annually into the European Union budget, accept the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice on a wide variety of issues, and maintain the rights of workers throughout the European Union to work in the United Kingdom.
May will push back on this, but in the end she will face a choice between accepting something close to Barnier’s conditions or returning to London at the end of the process with no deal at all. Had Johnson and Davis stayed in the government, there was a reasonable chance that the prime minister would have negotiated a compromise acceptable to the great majority of conservative members of the British Parliament. However, the two resignations this week have greatly undermined this prospect.
All this means that a serious political crisis is now highly likely. May will either fail to do a deal with the European Union or she will propose a deal that Parliament will reject. At least 300 opposition members are essentially “remainers” who would prefer the United Kingdom to remain in the European Union. At least 50 conservative members are hardline “leavers” who would reject any deal that Barnier is likely to accept. These two groups, from opposite ends of the Brexit argument, together form a majority in the House of Commons. They are likely to come together to vote down an agreement backed by May and Barnier.
Then what? Some members of Parliament say May should return to Brussels to negotiate a better deal. This looks like a waste of time. Some conservative members might seek to replace May as party leader and prime minister. She might decide she has had enough and stand down, but if she wishes to stay on, she will be hard to depose, as she has a stubborn streak and a belief in fighting to do her public duty.
A fresh general election has been mooted. However, the rules on calling an early election were changed in 2010. Again, what May wishes will be paramount. If she favors an election, she will certainly be able to assemble the two-thirds majority in Parliament that is needed these days, as the labor opposition would be very happy to vote for an early election. But given the deep and bitter divisions within her party, a general election is more likely to blow the party up than settled it down.
This leaves the possibility of a new referendum to decide whether to leave the European Union without an agreement or to remain in it after all. The polling evidence is suggestive but not conclusive. At present, instead of the narrow majority in favor of Brexit in the referendum two years ago, there would now be a narrow majority for reversing that vote. The margin is too small for any prediction to be made with confidence. But for the first time in two years, there is now at least an even chance that the campaign for another vote will succeed and reverse the decision of 2016.