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A year that Prime Minister Theresa may not survive

If 2017 was a difficult year for Theresa May, 2018 promises to be even more trying

analysis Updated: Dec 26, 2017 11:56 IST
Prasun Sonwalkar
Prasun Sonwalkar
Hindustan Times
Britain,Prime Minister Theresa May,European Union
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May leaves 10 Downing Street in London, December 20(REUTERS)

One of V P Singh’s contributions during his up-down-up career was his description of politics as the art of managing contradictions. It stemmed from tensions during the high tide of the coalition era in the early 1990s, but thousands of miles away, today it is Theresa May who seems to be successfully managing contradictions over the United Kingdom leaving the European Union. That she is still in Downing Street at the end of a year she would rather forget is an achievement in itself.

From calling a wholly unnecessary election in June to securing a larger mandate for Brexit but losing majority, to doing a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party to stay in power, to dealing with constant talk of a coup against her —Tory MPs are notorious for being ruthless to leaders who don’t deliver a majority — to floundering in the early stages of Brexit talks in Brussels, to a car-crash speech at the Conservative party conference, and losing as many as three cabinet ministers — May has seen it all. But she still managed to put up a feisty performance during the last Prime Minister’s Question Time of the year on December 20.

As the corridors of power in Westminster wind down for Christmas and the holiday season, there is a consensus that if 2017 was a difficult year for May, 2018 promises to be even more trying. The hard-lifting in Brussels is yet to begin, particularly on the future of Britain’s trade relations with the EU, and time is already running out before the exit deadline of March 29, 2019 to strike a deal that will satisfy both the Leavers and Remainers (dubbed Remoaners in the news media). When trade deals take years — the EU-Canada deal was negotiated over seven years, and the one between India and EU is nowhere near completion — it is unlikely that a deal can be conjured up in time before the deadline.

And there lies the nub of the Brexit imbroglio. Britain voted to leave the EU (52% to 48%) largely on promises on immigration and funding that were either lies or impossible to deliver. But having voted to leave the EU, the leading lights of May’s Brexit team continue to promise that they will secure the same trade and other benefits that are available to a member-state in negotiations, but stop paying large sums of money to Brussels, curb free migration of people from within the EU and also not be subject to EU laws and courts; in short, Britain will be able to have the cake and eat it too — an aspiration that causes some mirth in Brussels and European capitals, since cherry-picking is not exactly on offer.

All of which makes 2018 a year that not many in Whitehall and Westminster really are looking forward to. Britons on both sides of the Brexit argument will soon know what shape the final withdrawal deal will look like, and whether it is really worth leaving a group that is not only Britain’s largest trading partner, but whose membership since 1973 has benefited the country in many ways. There is not one aspect of daily life that is not governed by EU-wide rules, or does not have a European dimension. Extricating from the mass of EU laws and directives is a gigantic task in itself, and one that is sucking up energy of Whitehall’s bureaucracy. Many insist that the exit procedure itself is complicated enough to ensure that the deadline of March 29, 2019 is unlikely to be met: for example, the final withdrawal deal, if and when it is finalised, will need to be ratified by the parliaments of each of the 27 EU member-states before the deadline for Brexit to take effect.

May has survived the June electoral disaster primarily because there is no other candidate on whom the Conservative party can agree and also because she is seen as the least worst person to be in charge of Brexit (think of Boris Johnson or Michael Gove or David Davis and you get the point); she has managed to stay on through a delicate balancing act between the Leavers and Remainers within her party. The fear of dislodging her and paving the way for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to enter Downing Street is also holding her die-hard critics in the party at bay.

David Cameron, May’s predecessor, launched a campaign in 2011 to put ‘Great’ back into Britain. Few remember or talk about it today, as the prospect of Brexit makes Britain seem more insular than ever, never mind the magisterial declarations by May and other leading lights that leaving the EU will actually allow the country to be more global. May has already had to compromise in Brussels on the future of EU citizens in Britain and the Northern Ireland border issue. If 2017 was annus horribilis for her, it will be clear a few months into 2018 how long she will remain in power and if Brexit is really worth it when the balance sheet becomes clear during tough talks in Brussels.

First Published: Dec 26, 2017 11:55 IST