Theresa May Still Searching For A Brexit Deal

With just over two months to go until the March 29th deadline, British Prime Minister Theresa May is no closer to a Brexit deal.

Theresa May appears to be headed for another Brexit disaster in the House of Commons:

The emergency sirens are whirring for a no-deal Brexit — only this time it’s not a drill.

In European capitals there is now mounting alarm that Theresa May has set Britain on course for a diplomatic disaster, by fundamentally misjudging how far EU leaders are prepared to bend at the last minute in their summit just a week before Britain’s EU departure date.

A month after suffering the biggest parliamentary defeat in British history, May is doubling down on her strategy of winning her Brexiteer backbenchers and the Democratic Unionist Party over to supporting her deal by securing legally binding changes to the Withdrawal Agreement she finalized with the EU in November. Her ministers have made diplomatic forays to Brussels, Strasbourg, Paris and Dublin in recent days and May herself has spoken to the leaders of Germany, Portugal, Austria and Sweden. Next week, she will be back in Brussels for talks with Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

Despite yet another defeat in the House of Commons Thursday — albeit on a symbolic motion — the strategy remains the same. “The government’s position remains to resolve the issues of the backstop and then come back to parliament with a fresh meaningful vote,” Leader of the House Andrea Leadsom told the BBC Friday.

But there is skepticism in Brussels about the substance of the current diplomatic flurry. ”There are no real talks going on. It’s more May speaking to capitals, testing the water and trying to give the impression to her people at home that there are actual talks to gain some time,” said one EU diplomat. “There’s nothing on the table yet, we still hope to see it at least in March.”

“No news is not always good news,” tweeted Council President Donald Tusk, “EU27 still waiting for concrete, realistic proposals from London.”

Senior EU27 officials say May has failed to narrow her Brexit demands to a “single constructive proposal” to find a way through the impasse over the Irish border.

One minister from a major EU power was left so shocked after a meeting with a U.K. counterpart last week they concluded Britain is now hell-bent on pushing the crisis to the wire in the hope of a last-minute concession from EU leaders, which will not materialize.

The view is shared by some senior members of the U.K. Cabinet, who fear the PM is heading for a repeat of the diplomatic disaster at the EU leaders’ summit in Salzburg last September. At that meeting she miscalculated the EU’s willingness to engage with her proposed Chequers “compromise” offer, leaving her politically humiliated amid mocking headlines and recriminations in Westminster.


Among U.K. Cabinet ministers, diplomats and senior EU officials, speculation is growing about a short technical extension of the Article 50 exit period, which could be agreed in principle in early March to create the space for a showdown at the summit in Brussels later that month.

This would give the U.K. and EU time to implement whatever was agreed at the summit — or put in place the last-minute preparations for no-deal.

In this scenario, the March meeting of EU leaders would agree the final Brexit package while also officially signing off a short exit delay to allow the U.K. parliament to push through the agreement before British local elections on May 2.

However, senior EU27 officials and British Cabinet ministers are privately voicing fears that the U.K. prime minister is still misreading the extent of what is possible at the final summit.

This fear is not confined to European capitals. One senior Conservative MP said the PM is walking into the same trap she set for herself at the Salzburg meeting, and that colleagues have learned the wrong lesson from the euro crisis and the EU’s treatment of Greece.

All of this comes just over a month after the House of Commons, in an historic rebuke of a sitting government, rejected the May government’s Brexit proposal, a development which has put the entire Brexit process in doubt and raising the possibility of a so-called “hard Brexit” in which they would be no withdrawal deal at all. Since then May has apparently struggled to come up with changes to the plan that she and her negotiator had reached with the European Union’s negotiators that will pass the House of Commons and, so far at least, it does not appear that there’s been any progress at all. Instead, it appears that May has been dividing her time between trying to get additional concessions from the E.U. and trying to find a way to close the massive gap in votes that she faced in the House of Commons back in January. In neither case does she seem to be making any significant progress.

All of this leads to the question would be where this all goes given the fact that we are now just over a month away from the supposed Brexit deadline of March 29th.

One option would be a so-called  “hard” Brexit, which means Brexit without any agreements regarding future trade between the United Kingdom and the European Union, no provisions regarding trade or the transfer of goods, services, and funds, no provisions regarding the status of U.K. nationals living abroad in E.U. member states, and no provisions regarding the status of the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. This last point could easily and quickly become a point of contention that would threaten to unravel the peace and calm that has existed there for the past twenty years. While some hardline Brexiteers seem to be cheering a “hard Brexit” on, it seems clear that it would be potentially disastrous for Great Britain since it would potentially mean a loss of access to goods from the continent, the closure of markets to British goods, and difficulties for British ships seeking to deliver goods to European ports.

Alternatively, the British Government and the European Union could agree to extend the Brexit deadline and either return to square one and try to come up with broader changes to the existing deal that would make it possible to get approval in the House of Commons. Given the comments from the E.U, negotiators after the vote in January, though, that seemed exceedingly unlikely. However, since then May and her negotiators have been talking to their counterparts Despite that, though, this may end up being the way things proceed since neither party seems to relish the idea of a “hard” Brexit just two and a half months from now and there appears to be very little time between now and then to negotiate something that could get approval in the House of Commons in time for the existing March 29th deadline.

The final option would be that the May government could try to find a way to push the Article 50 deadline off indefinitely and resubmit the “leave” or “remain” options to a nationwide referendum like the one we saw in 2016. There’s presently no provision in British law for that, of course, but that could change with a simple majority vote in Parliament. The hope at that point, I presume, would be that this time the voters would come to the rescue of the government and change their minds on breaking off ties with the European Union. At this point, though, that’s just a theoretical idea.

Where will things go next? Who knows, but there’s not much time left.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Stormy Dragon says:

    There’s been speculation that Brexit is really about the EU Anti Tax Avoidance Directive that goes into effect January 1, 2019 and that super wealthy brits (like Philip May) wanted a hard brexit from the beginning so that they could avoid being subject to it. What we’re seen now is just kabuki theater so that they can back into a hard brexit while not taking the blame for doing so.

  2. SenyorDave says:

    I think you meant to say just over one month to go until the deadline.

  3. Kit says:

    Leadership is failing all across the Western world, but May is simply in a class of her own. If both she and Trump are barreling unswerving down their respective political highways, Trump is behind the wheel laughing manically and playing chicken with all comers. May is grimly determined to carry out her mission from God and drive off the cliff and into history.

  4. Not the IT Dept. says:

    Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say she’s still searching for a clue?

  5. Kathy says:

    I saw the Brexit deal May is looking for. It was next to a bucket of steam and a can of stripe paint at the store that sells real dragon eggs.

  6. grumpy realist says:

    We’re also now having the new “Independent Group” which has 8 people defecting from Labour and 3 people defecting from the Tory party. So May’s calculations have gotten even more knife-edge. (If she’s calculating at all as opposed to simply charging ahead with no planning.) I can’t help but feel what she’s trying to do is continually kicking the can down the road and hoping desperately for a deus ex machina to get her out of her problem.

    Oh, and yeah, there’s a whole lot of hardcore Brits who are now insisting on a “hard Brexit”, predicting all sorts of sunlight pastures and frolicking unicorns and gee-whiz utopias. I especially like the ones who are insisting that the U.K. will turn into Singapore-on-the-Thames, totally ignoring that one reason for Singapore’s financial success is because it’s about the only developed country in the world that has a double-taxation treaty with Taiwan…..

  7. Sleeping Dog says:

    Did they have unicorns there?

    My thought is that Mrs. May is running out the clock. In mid-March she will resubmit her plan to Commons and say, it is this or a hard Brexit.

  8. Gustopher says:

    Would anyone notice if the Brits just said They were leaving the EU? Like Trump and his wall that is mostly built. Make a big show of welcoming back the British representatives, and then just coast with no representation. Claim to have negotiated a great deal, that happens to look exactly like the status quo.

    Have a huge ad campaign about some onerous fake new EU regulation (lower flow toilets), and how they really dodged a bullet.

    I mean, is that any stupider than a hard Brexit?

  9. Kathy says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    Unicorns only exist in Silicon Valley.

  10. Barry says:

    @Sleeping Dog: “My thought is that Mrs. May is running out the clock. In mid-March she will resubmit her plan to Commons and say, it is this or a hard Brexit”

    And they will choose hard Brexit.

  11. gVOR08 says:

    @Stormy Dragon: I haven’t followed Brexit closely. It’s seemed something of a mystery why so much money was spent supporting a move that doesn’t seem to do any good for anyone. There have to be hidden agendas. Perhaps opening the possibility of turning the UK into a tax haven explains it.