Why Britain’s political crisis will run for weeks

Divisions in the political class are so deep that a ready solution won’t be found

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Is Britain heading for a pre-Brexit general election?

Theresa May faces a confidence motion after losing a vote on her Brexit deal with Brussels by a margin of 230. There were 120 members of her own Conservative party and the Democratic Unionist Party, which holds the balance of power, who voted against her. However these rebels are now going to fall into line to support the government, fearing the alternative of a Marxist-leaning Labour leadership gaining control of Downing St.

Can the UK prime minister salvage her Brexit deal after such a massive loss?

It’s not going to be easy. The EU is showing very little sign of compromise. Domestic opponents of Mrs May come from both sides of the spectrum. Those on the right want a clean break from Europe. Those on the left want a closer partnership post-membership. However this would mean compromises that Mrs May has ruled out.

A protester holds a poster depicting Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn in London, Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019. British lawmakers overwhelmingly rejected Prime Minister Theresa May's divorce deal with the European Union on Tuesday, plunging the Brexit process into chaos and triggering a no-confidence vote that could topple her government. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

What is the main sticking point and can it be addressed?

Some opponents of the withdrawal agreement demand the removal of the so-called Irish border backstop. However that has been put in place to ensure that goods and services can flow freely between the two parts of the island. Without it there is a fear that old hatreds will be stirred up and there will be a return to violence. The government in Dublin has played a strong diplomatic hand in securing the backstop and will not want to give it up. A hot mike caught the Irish foreign minister telling a colleague that the government does not want to be seen as the one that reimposed the hard border in Ireland.

Is that the only impediment or does solution lie elsewhere?

Related to the Irish border provisions is the sticking point of a Customs Union between the EU and Britain. This would damage Britain’s ability to strike free trade deals with other non-European economies. Mrs May said on Wednesday that she would not forfeit the commercial opportunities around the rest of the world by tying the UK economy to Europe in an arrangement that replicated many of the established links.

Does it all come down to trade ties?

No. The issue of immigration is just as important. Other influential politicians are urging Mrs May to scrap the current template and position Britain alongside Norway. That is an independent, non-EU nation that has full access to the EU single market. The drawback here is that unlimited flows of immigration between Britain and the EU states would continue post departure. This breaks the pledge that Britain would regain control of its borders by establishing a new skills-based immigration policy.

If all of the above is unacceptable, what happens next?

The default position is that Britain leaves the EU in a sudden break on March 29th. However a growing campaign backed by former prime minister Tony Blair and others is backing a second referendum. The government opposes this saying it would revive the bitter divisions of the 2016 and could lead to ongoing rancour.


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