IT HAS LONG been obvious that Theresa May is not in charge of much. The prime minister has limited control of Parliament, her Conservative Party or even her own cabinet. And she has even less sway over the European Union, as became clear in another EU Brexit summit on April 10th.
Mrs May had asked European leaders to put back the Article 50 Brexit deadline—originally March 29th, later extended to April 12th—until the end of June. As when she made a similar request three weeks ago, her wishes were largely ignored. Over a long dinner without her, the leaders of the EU’s 27 other countries decided instead to extend the deadline to October 31st, with a review of progress in June.
Another delay to Brexit was a foregone conclusion. Nobody beyond the Tory party fringes seriously backed the alternative of Britain crashing out now with no-deal. Especially important to the EU 27 were the views of Leo Varadkar, the Irish taoiseach, whose country would suffer most from a no-deal Brexit and who wanted a long Article 50 extension. Even if EU leaders were fed up with Mrs May, nobody wanted to override Mr Varadkar.
Yet getting agreement was not easy. Several leaders favoured a longer extension of up to a year, if only to avoid being asked repeatedly to agree to a series of short ones. But Emmanuel Macron, the French president, argued for a short deadline to increase the pressure on Britain to make up its mind. A longer delay might only give MPs in Westminster more time to quarrel, rather than agree on a form of Brexit they could support. The eventual compromise was to offer another six months, meaning Britain is due to leave on Halloween.
What might be achieved during this period? MPs have already rejected the draft Brexit deal three times. EU leaders are categorical that the withdrawal agreement, which includes the unpopular Irish backstop to avert a hard border in Ireland, cannot be changed. Indeed, they have made clear that, even after a no-deal Brexit, this would be a precondition for a future trade deal. But they would happily change the political declaration about future relations in order to soften Brexit, perhaps adding a permanent customs union or even membership of the single market.
Like many in Westminster, European leaders are sceptical that the recently begun talks between Mrs May and the Labour opposition leader, Jeremy Corbyn, will yield an agreement. And, after watching two rounds of indicative votes in Parliament, they also doubt there is a clear majority among MPs for any alternative version of Brexit. Yet despite these doubts, they felt it was better to kick the can down the road for another six months than have a full-blown crisis now.
A bigger concern was what to do with a Britain that will now be a member for longer than planned. One difficulty is the European Parliament elections that are due at the end of May. Yet although Mrs May had previously resisted the notion that Britain might participate (“What kind of message would that send?” she asked in a televised address only three weeks ago), this time she quickly conceded that it would. Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission’s president, called such an election “curious”, which indeed it will be. But fears that British voters might elect maverick MEPs are partly assuaged by the knowledge that so will those of many other countries.
More worrying is the notion that Britain could disrupt the EU’s everyday business by using its veto, as some Brexiteers have proposed. The EU summit sought assurances from Mrs May that she would act responsibly. But the real fear is over her own durability. After all, barely a month ago she told Parliament that she could not as prime minister accept any delay in Brexit beyond June 30th. In Brussels Mrs May defended herself over this by repeatedly saying that, if Parliament would only agree, Britain could still be out by then.
Yet her vulnerability and her lost authority are obvious to all—as is the plotting among Conservative MPs over the succession. Her own ministers have begun to talk openly about who might make the best candidate. The Tories are likely to do badly in local elections on May 2nd and worse still in the European ones on May 23rd, which will only increase the pressure on the prime minister to quit.
Till May be out
The concern in the EU is that any plausible successor as Tory leader will be a hard Brexiteer such as the former foreign secretary, Boris Johnson. Any new prime minister would doubtless be constrained by the same forces that have boxed in Mrs May. But a more hardline prime minister might be readier to contemplate a no-deal Brexit, perhaps after holding and winning another general election. The EU may have found Mrs May tiresome, but it is aware that her successor could be worse.
The deeper point is that Britain is still split down the middle. There is little sign of agreement between or even within the main political parties. Some revealing evidence emerged at two separate events in London on April 9th. A rally to promote a second referendum on the deal, which included several Tory MPs, loudly demonised both Mr Johnson and his fellow Tory Brexiteer, Jacob Rees-Mogg. Meanwhile a meeting of the hardline Eurosceptic Bruges Group was not only denouncing Mrs May as a traitor, but also expressing hostility to Mr Johnson and Mr Rees-Mogg for belatedly backing her deal. The atmosphere was more of a revolution consuming its own than of emerging consensus.
The biggest fear of all in Brussels this week may not have been about Mrs May’s weakness or even about her successor. It is that even in October Britain will still be unable to make up its mind. And as Donald Tusk, the European Council president, conceded after the meeting, that could mean more late-night summits to discuss further Article 50 extensions.