Renaldo Weekes, Guest Contributor
In 2016, the United Kingdom (UK) held the now famous ‘The United Kingdom European Union (EU) Membership referendum’ in which it voted to leave the EU. Due to then-Prime Minister David Cameron’s resignation over the result of the referendum, Theresa May became the Conservative party leader and concomitantly, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. What followed was a tumultuous few years as Mrs. May tried to negotiate a deal that would satiate the country and the House of Commons.
As she came to realise, however, this was no easy task. Disagreements over whether there should be a clean break from the EU with no deal, trading on World Trade Organization (WTO) rules, or a deal that would tie the UK to the EU in some form ensued. When a deal was finally crafted, Members of Parliament (MPs) from all across the Commons, including those in May’s own Conservative party, showed their displeasure for it as they rejected it three times. Though she tried to secure some changes, the EU effectively ruled that out. Fed up with the situation, many of her cabinet members began to resign and many MPs started calling for her own resignation as well.
Amidst of all this, Theresa May argued that her deal was the best deal they could get and that she would not resign. That, however, did not last long. In an effort to persuade the Commons to support her deal, she promised she would resign if they voted for it. That was not enough, however, and now she has finally announced on Friday, May 25, 2019, that she will resign as Conservative party leader on June 7 and subsequently, Prime Minister of the UK. All problems do not end with Theresa May, however. In fact, some new ones now arise. One must ask what Theresa May’s resignation means for the Brexit withdrawal deal and the United Kingdom’s trade policy with other countries.
A New Prime Minister and a new deal?
Theresa May’s resignation has sparked a competition for leadership of the Conservative party and the UK as a whole. This means that all conservative MPs who were dissatisfied with May’s handling of Brexit now have the chance to correct all of her wrongs. At first, it may seem as though the party may choose one of the many vocal, hardline Brexiteers who wish to see a no-deal scenario, such as former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, to become the next Prime Minister since those hardliners are often credited as obstructing the passing of May’s deal. However, we must not forget that the Conservative Tory party is also made up of persons who wish to have a close relationship with the EU or even to remain in the Union. Those varying stances have all played a part in why May’s deal has been rejected. They all agreed on what they didn’t want but must now agree on what they want. Some Tory MPs have publicly said that will oppose the selection of someone like Mr. Johnson as his plans for a no-deal Brexit are too reckless.
Let us consider a scenario where a no-deal supporter became the Prime Minister. Presumably, he may just rip up the deal and choose to exit the EU on WTO terms. This is next to impossible, however, as the House of Commons has already rejected a no-deal scenario under Theresa May. It is far less likely that those opposed to a no-deal withdrawal will change their minds just because of a new face. Especially if that new face is acting more ideological than pragmatic. If a no-deal scenario were to succeed, it would create massive disruption to operations and supply of goods as many businesses have deep ties within the EU that help them to survive. There will be an eventual recovery but how long will that recovery take? Would it really be wise to risk financial stability for the sake of satisfying an ideological point?
What about a deal-supporting Conservative? There are many MPs who want to leave the EU with a deal but they differ on what they want in the deal. Some want an arm’s length relationship in the deal while others want to be as close as possible to the Union with a customs union or what has been dubbed as the common market 2.0. Though those scenarios would be more preferable than a no-deal, the House has also rejected those through the series of indicative votes that it held in late March and early April. On the face of it, no matter what the new Prime Minister brings, it may suffer the same fate as May’s deal. Of note though, is the margin by which each indicative vote failed. In the second round of indicative votes, the customs union vote tabled by ‘europhile’ Tory Kenneth Clarke, lost by only 3 votes; the lowest margin. The new Prime Minister who knows how to play politics better than Theresa May may able to swing people to the customs union provided that it is his or her preferred option.
Forgetting Brexit entirely?
Other options such as holding a second referendum and revoking article 50 are also desired by some but that may not be the wisest thing to consider at this time. The public will perceive that the Government is holding a new referendum simply because the first one produced an undesired result. Revoking article 50 goes directly against what the people voted for. Avoiding Brexit may be the desired outcome for some, but the public upheaval that may arise through the methods of trying to stop it may not be worth it. Implementing these options with support from the House and the public will be quite laborious.
The EU’s role in the deal
Amidst of all this, no matter what the new Prime Minister puts forward, he or she still has to deal with the EU. The EU has made clear that they will not change the current deal. There is no more room for tweaks or changes, especially relating to the contentious Irish backstop that seeks to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. If a new Prime Minster believes that he or she can sway the EU to remove the backstop or any other restrictive conditions then he or she is sorely mistaken. It will be especially difficult to renegotiate the deal so late into the timeline with someone who may be hostile toward the EU. By all means, however, the EU will welcome anyone willing to build its current relationship with the UK. It will be easier to renegotiate the deal in that regard. The EU will also still be wary of crafting any kind of deal considering that the House has effectively ruled out all options on the table.
The United Kingdom’s Trade policy with other Countries
It is quite clear that Brexit will shape who becomes the next Conservative leader and the next Prime Minister but there are other trade policy issues that exist beyond Brexit. With a change in leadership and subsequent change in team, other world leaders must now adapt to what could be a change in trade policy approach. There could be a new Prime Minister who is more of a hardliner as it relates to overall trade policy or someone who has a softer approach. This will be of special interest to leaders like United States (US) President Donald Trump who wishes to renegotiate the US’ trade deals with other world leaders that he considers as conciliatory parties. This may not be much of a big concern, however, as a change in leadership is normal as this happens whenever there is a general election.
Additionally, a Conservative is a Conservative. There may be no real major policy changes for the country as a whole. The relationship between the UK and the EU is also one that is unlike other relationships the UK has and issues surrounding Brexit will be far more complex than normal trade relationships. Others may claim that the EU is being a bully as it is merely concerned for its own sustainability.
Considering that all surrounding factors remain the same, those being Parliament’s and the EU’s stubbornness, and the fact that practically speaking, there are no changes that can be made unless they seek to bring the UK and the EU closer together, the new Prime Minister has to be one that looks at the situation in a pragmatic way rather than ideological. He or she must also be able to play politics. Though the legal relationship is what really matters, people must be sold on the idea that this is the best possible deal rather than simply being told it is the best. Whoever the new Prime Minister is, one can only hope they can achieve these things and solve the current Brexit problem rather than exacerbate it or even create new ones. The Conservatives must realize that Britain’s future, Brexit and beyond, is in their hands.
Renaldo Weekes is a holder of a BSc. (Sociology and Law) who observes international affairs from his humble, small island home. He has keen interest in how countries try to maneuver across the international political and legal stage. Read his other postings here.