Theresa May's Brexit Dilemma

It Comes Down to Party vs. Country

British Prime Minister Theresa May in the cabinet office signs the official letter to European Council President Donald Tusk invoking Article 50 and the United Kingdom's intention to leave the EU  in Londgon, March 2017.   Christopher Furlong / REUTERS

If there were one award that British Prime Minister Theresa May deserved this year, it would be a prize for political survival. After a botched general election in June, which saw her Conservative Party lose its slim majority in the House of Commons, most observers of British politics thought her days were numbered. The stunning rejuvenation of the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, a shaky “confidence-and-supply” deal with the ultraconservative Northern Irish Democratic Union Party (DUP) to prop up her government, endless cabinet infighting between so-called hard and soft Brexiteers, and constant plots to have her defenestrated did not bode well for the British leader at the time. By the end of the year, however, she could point to an Article 50 divorce agreement with the European Union that few thought possible. Although many of her MPs wanted her gone by the end of the summer, they are now clamoring for her to stay on until at least 2021. 

Unfortunately for May, the Brexit rubber is about to meet reality road. In fact, the divorce agreement with the EU was nothing more than a diplomatic exercise in creative financial accounting, a hashing out of reciprocal citizens’ rights, and a rather puzzling fudge on the Northern Irish border question. All the tough Tory talk that the EU could “go whistle” after its money, and of ending European Court of Justice (ECJ) jurisdiction on day one of Brexit, quickly made way for the United Kingdom to sign a deal largely on the EU’s terms. Now May will have to show her party and her country that she can secure a future trade agreement with the EU that is both favorable in economic terms and will allow the United Kingdom to “take back control” of its borders, its money, and its laws.

Sooner rather than later, May will have to make clear precisely what kind of Brexit her government wants. Astonishingly, this conversation has yet to take place, since it would have exposed the fault

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