Theresa May took Britain one step closer to the Brexit cliff edge on Tuesday as the prime minister pleaded with MPs to give her more time to secure a better exit deal. “We all need to hold our nerve,” she told the House of Commons.
But as Brexit day on March 29 approaches, Mrs May’s publicly stated willingness to lead Britain out of the EU without a deal — if none can be agreed by parliament — is causing a collective loss of nerve at Westminster and beyond.
Hilary Benn, Labour chair of the Commons Brexit select committee, said business leaders were “tearing out their hair” at the prospect of the UK crashing out of the EU without an agreement at the end of next month.
“I don’t believe the prime minister would do that to the country,” he said during Mrs May’s latest Commons statement on her Brexit work. “She will,” heckled another Labour MP.
The reality is that nobody outside Mrs May’s tiny inner circle knows whether she would really drive the British economy over the precipice; even senior cabinet ministers are in the dark.
“I don’t know what’s in her mind,” said one close political friend of the prime minister. “I’m not sure anybody really does, apart from Philip.” The Philip in question is her husband, not her chancellor.
Mrs May appears to be adapting Richard Nixon’s “madman theory” for the 21st century, learning lessons from the US president who tried to persuade adversaries to bow to his will or risk him doing something dangerously irrational.
The British prime minister seeks to convince Brussels and her Eurosceptic critics at home that she is willing to inflict damage on the UK and EU economies by seeing through a chaotic no-deal Brexit unless they reach a compromise on Britain’s divorce agreement.
“I’ve no idea what she is going to do,” confided one cabinet minister, before whispering: “Off the record, what do you think she is going to do?”
Mrs May is seeking changes to her Brexit deal with the EU after it was emphatically rejected by MPs in a so-called meaningful vote last month.
Eurosceptic Conservative MPs strongly object to backstop provisions in the withdrawal agreement to prevent the return to a hard Irish border, and the prime minister now wants changes to win them over.
But Brussels is steadfastly refusing to reopen the agreement, and the impasse is intensifying fears that a no-deal exit is becoming a real danger.
Downing Street refused to rule out the possibility that Mrs May will only hold a second meaningful vote on a revised Brexit deal in the last week of March, after a showdown with EU leaders at a summit on March 21.
By that point Mrs May would hope to present MPs with a stark choice: accept the deal on the table or face Britain leaving without an agreement on March 29, as ordained in British law and Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon treaty.
“If she faces a choice between leaving the EU without a deal on March 29 or seeking an extension to Article 50, what will she do?” implored Ed Miliband, the former Labour party leader.
Mrs May retained an enigmatic calm when faced with persistent questioning along the same lines in the Commons. “If you don’t want no deal, you have to agree a deal,” she deadpanned. She would return with a deal “as soon as possible”.
Leaving the EU without a deal would be a massive political risk, even if Eurosceptic Tories insist the dangers are exaggerated and that the disruption caused by the severing of 45 years of economic and regulatory ties can be mitigated.
Mrs May was warned in a report by government economists last November that a no-deal exit could leave Britain missing out on 9.3 per cent of gross domestic product that it would otherwise have had in 15 years’ time by staying in the EU.
Regardless of whether such analysis is reliable, it is the official advice on Mrs May’s desk. Ignoring it and ploughing ahead with a no-deal exit would leave her horribly exposed even if some of the feared economic damage never materialised.
Monday’s GDP figures, showing that the British economy in 2018 had its worst performance since the financial crisis, have raised the stakes. “She’s playing chicken with people’s livelihoods,” said Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Mrs May’s “my deal or no deal” stance appeared to be undermined on Tuesday evening when ITV News reported that Olly Robbins, her chief EU negotiator, was overheard in a Brussels bar saying MPs would be warned that if they rejected a revised withdrawal agreement then Brexit would be delayed and there would be a “long” extension of the Article 50 exit process.
But pro-European MPs, fearing that the prime minister might indeed turn out to be “a madman” intent on taking the UK out of the EU without a deal, are working on a last-ditch plan to pass a law to stop her doing just that.
Senior MPs, including Labour’s Yvette Cooper, will make another attempt to take control of the Brexit process at the end of this month after an earlier effort failed last month.
Mrs May has promised a parliamentary motion about Brexit that MPs can amend and vote on by February 27; this is seen as the moment of truth for Europhiles who argue she must delay Brexit if she cannot secure a revised deal.
Success will almost certainly depend on whether Conservative ministers are prepared to resign to thwart a no-deal exit; they have been threatening to quit for some time, but have so far failed to act.
“Step up by stepping down,” urged Sarah Wollaston, the Europhile Conservative who chairs the Commons health select committee. “If she hasn’t got a deal in place by February 25, I would expect ministers to walk,” said another leading pro-European MP.
But Mrs May will fight to keep open the option of a no-deal exit, perhaps channelling the advice of Machiavelli, who argued that sometimes it was “a very wise thing to simulate madness”.