WESTMINSTER IS becalmed. No big bills are under debate or even planned. MPs seem to have little to do but plot. On April 30th the Commons even adjourned before teatime. It is almost as if no serious political issue faces the country.
Except, of course, that one does. After the European Union’s latest deadline extension, Brexit is due on October 31st. Yet there is little sign of a compromise that would pass in Parliament, which has rejected the current deal three times. Negotiations between the government and the opposition were stepped up this week, with hints that Theresa May might even concede Labour’s demand for a permanent customs union. But Tory Brexiteers’ hostility to a plan that would crimp hopes of free-trade deals around the world is intense. There is a clear risk that any Labour votes won by adding a customs union to the deal would be offset by lost Tory ones.
And there is little time left. Six months may sound a lot, but both the quantity and the complexity of legislation needed to implement Brexit are daunting. Political events like this week’s local elections or the European elections on May 23rd will divert Tories into ever more convoluted conspiracies to dump Mrs May as prime minister. No rival wants to replace her before a Brexit deal is done and dusted, but none wants her to continue into next year either.
Mrs May herself is boxed in. The idea of jumping ahead by putting the Brexit withdrawal bill directly to MPs is too risky, because if it were voted down it could not be reintroduced in the current session. And although this session has already lasted an unusual two years, she cannot start a new one with a fresh Queen’s Speech because she is unable to get through any serious legislation. She would also find it difficult, and maybe impossible, to renew the confidence and supply deal with the Northern Irish Democratic Unionists that sustains her government in office.
Revived talk of changing the Brexit deal, through alternative arrangements that supersede the much-disliked Irish backstop to avert a border in Ireland, is pointless, as Brussels (and Dublin) will never agree to it. A no-deal Brexit has been rejected by both MPs and the EU. The prime minister herself is now clear that such an outcome must be avoided, not least because she fears that the fallout in both Northern Ireland and Scotland could lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom.
At first blush Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s leader, seems in a better place than Mrs May. So far, his ambiguous position of rejecting her Brexit deal in favour of a better Labour one, while not clearly promising a second referendum, has served him well. This week he secured the backing of Labour’s National Executive Committee for a European election manifesto that refers only to the option of another vote if needed to stop a bad Tory Brexit or a no-deal one.
Yet many Labour MPs and candidates want to go further by campaigning for a confirmatory referendum for any Brexit deal, with the choice of remaining in the EU on the ballot. And polling evidence suggests that, although Mr Corbyn’s approach may keep some pro-Brexit Labour voters on board, it risks losing many more anti-Brexit ones to parties like Change UK, the Greens or the Liberal Democrats that are openly calling for another referendum.
What might break the logjam? An agreement between the Conservatives and Labour still looks a long shot. A new Tory leader may be even less ready to compromise. Some EU countries threaten to veto any extension of the deadline beyond October. Yet nobody wants no-deal. One official says the only way to get MPs to vote for a deal is if they believe the alternative is a no-deal Brexit. But such a threat will almost certainly never be true.