December 12, 2018 / 12:46 PM / 7 months ago

Breakingviews - Challenge to Theresa May clarifies Brexit endgames

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May addresses the media outside 10 Downing Street after it was announced that the Conservative Party will hold a vote of no confidence in her leadership, in London, Britain, December 12, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - It turns out there is one ballot that Theresa May cannot postpone. Two days after pulling a parliamentary vote that was about to reject her plan for leaving the European Union, the British prime minister faces a motion of no confidence from her own party. The outcome will help clarify Britain’s Brexit endgames.

With 107 days to go until the United Kingdom’s EU membership is due to end, the country has four options on how to proceed. May’s deal would ensure a phased withdrawal, but could leave Britain in a customs union with the EU that it cannot unilaterally end. Another option is a softer Brexit that would tie the country more closely to the bloc, but without the influence over decisions it currently enjoys. Britain could also cancel its decision to leave, though only after conducting another divisive referendum. If it does nothing, the country will leave the EU on March 29 next year, severing links with its largest trading partner and inflicting severe economic damage.

These choices remain the same regardless of who occupies the prime minister’s Downing Street home. Nevertheless, the Wednesday evening vote by more than 300 Conservative members of parliament could narrow them. If May loses, or suffers a sufficiently large defeat that she is forced to step down, her deal will be dead. Leadership rivals will then have to choose between a softer Brexit or the more painful “no deal” option. That debate risks splitting the party and could embolden the opposition Labour party to launch its own motion of no confidence in the government, which would require a simple majority in parliament. That, in turn, could clear the way for another election or the creation of a national government.

Even if May survives, it will be hard to get her deal through parliament. However, she will be insulated from further internal attacks: Conservative party rules prevent another leadership challenge for a year. That would make it easier for her to embrace options that she has so far ruled out, such as a second referendum.

Whatever the outcome of Wednesday’s vote, a resolution is still some way off. Businesses will delay investment and plan for the worst. But after two-and-a-half years of ignoring the painful trade-offs involved in leaving the European Union, May and her party are finally being forced to confront their limited range of difficult choices.

Breakingviews

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