16 May 2019

While the timetable for Theresa May's departure has been accelerated, that may not be enough to hasten the passing of her – or any – Brexit deal, writes Bronwen Maddox

Finally, there is a timetable for the end of Theresa May’s tenure as prime minister. Well, almost; the prime minister has not set a date for going. But in agreeing to set the timetable for the election of her successor as Conservative party leader after she brings her Brexit bill to Parliament at the start of June, she has irretrievably started the process which will see her leave No.10 and a successor walk through the door.

She cannot now go back on that. The question is how that affects the fate of her Withdrawl Agreement Bill in Parliament, the leadership of the party, the chances of a general election, and the outcome of Brexit itself.

The Withdrawal Agreement Bill – any chance of passing?

Theresa May has made securing Parliament’s approval for her Brexit deal with the EU the defining quest of her premiership. In the concession that Tory MPs extracted from her earlier this year, she agreed to step down if the House of Commons backed her deal. The latest concession goes much further; she will now go whatever happens. Could that possibly improve the chances of her deal in the Commons?

Unlikely, but not impossible. The PM has said that she will bring the Withdrawal Agreement Bill to the Commons in the week of June 3. The previous three times she has brought her Brexit plan to the Commons, she asked MPs simply for approval of her deal. This time, she is asking them to vote directly on the legislation needed to bring into UK law the terms of the UK’s exit from the EU which are set out in that deal.

It has seemed for days as if it has had little chance of passing. Talks with Labour have stalled, depriving the prime minister of one route to a Commons majority. Pro-Brexit Conservatives have derided it, asking with scorn what has changed from the previous three attempts. The DUP, which gives the Government its working majority, has also dismissed it.

All the same, her commitment to begin the process of stepping down may change some calculations. Pro-Remain MPs may fear the likelihood that her successor is a pro-Brexit hardliner who would welcome “no deal”. Pro-Brexit MPs may fear that a rejection of the deal would squander the chance of achieving Brexit. If the Commons rejected the deal yet again, it might be forced to choose between the stark alternatives of no deal and revoking Article 50 – stopping the Brexit process entirely. 

The more pragmatic among them argue that as there is little in the Withdrawal Agreement that determines the shape of the future relationship with the EU, and that the next prime minister will (subject to parliamentary arithmetic) have enormous influence over that shape, they should just get Brexit secured, by voting for her deal, and focus on writing the future relationship of their choice at that point.

The Tory leadership contest is already well underway

Theresa May’s announcement on the timetable licences what has, barely tacitly, been going on for weeks: a leadership contest which includes most of the best known members of the parliamentary party (and some of the less well known, too). Calculations have centred on whether one or both of the two candidates selected by MPs for party members to vote on would be pro-Brexit, and whether the antipathy that many MPs have for Boris Johnson would prevent him being among the final two.

The new factor is the European Parliament elections, and the rapid emergence of Nigel Farage’s new Brexit party as the front runner. Meanwhile, the Conservatives have seen polls destroy their standing by the day – some putting them in fifth place – although Labour has suffered from the rise of smaller parties too.

The results complicate the predictions of Johnson’s fortunes. On one hand, some Conservatives see him as the candidate who could most successfully appeal to Leave voters across the country. Others point out his own vulnerability in a general election to the Remain-leaning voters in his Uxbridge constituency.

The results, if as devastating as expected for the Conservatives, may not reinforce one candidate over another, but they will undoubtedly heighten even further the party’s sense of turmoil. If Theresa May had not seized the initiative by announcing that she would finally go, it is very likely that those results would have generated overwhelming pressure for her to step down.

The Brexit timetable and the parliamentary arithmetic remain the same

Whoever the new leader of the Conservatives is, he or she will face the same tortuous parliamentary arithmetic that has confounded all attempts to get agreement for any way ahead on Brexit. Nor will there be any easy escape from the European deadline of October 31; if Parliament has not given its assent to a deal by then, the UK stands to leave with no deal.

The most consistent and clear part of Labour’s position has been the desire to trigger a general election – for instance, by frustrating the Government’s ability to make progress on Brexit. There is no incentive for Labour to ease the passage of Brexit under a new leader, unless it could claim undiluted triumph in doing so (for instance, by securing a customs union). There is no reason to think a new Conservative leader would win any more support from Jeremy Corbyn's party.

Indeed, a new leader might lose support from quarters that have so far not been actively hostile towards, if not exactly onside with, Theresa May. Remain-leaning Conservative MPs might threaten to vote against a leader who proposes no deal, even at the cost of triggering a general election.

The only factors capable of changing the Commons arithmetic would be an unyielding EU position on the deadline – making no deal a real possibility – or a swell of support for a second referendum or revocation, threatening to whisk Brexit away entirely.

If the deadlock remains, a general election becomes ever more likely.