No easy way out for May in Brexit jam

Editorial | Mary Ma 28 Dec 2017

British Prime Minister Theresa May has gambled twice on Brexit, first rolling the dice in mid-year when she expected the snap election to win her an overwhelming mandate to allow her to shovel the Brexit deal her way.

Instead, she gave away the Tories' majority in parliament..

May headed for the craps table again this month, banking on a newly-installed party whip to discipline Tory MPs to toe the line on a crucial Brexit bill - designed to give her government extensive executive powers to implement whatever is agreed upon in negotiations - without having to refer it to parliament for legislation.

Inexperienced in the role, the newcomer, Julian Smith, promoted after the incumbent Gavin Williamson filled the defense secretary vacancy left by Michael Fallon, who had resigned in disgrace over sexual allegations, failed to marshal enough MPs to back the bill.

About a dozen Conservative MPs rebelled to pass an amendment subjecting any deal reached to the prior enactment of a statute by parliament.

The failure to pass the Brexit bill unamended has dealt May a big blow. However, the vote outcome does help to reaffirm the critical checks-and-balances design built into the world's oldest parliamentary democracy. While British politics can sometimes be messy, the checks-and-balances system kicks in exactly as expected at the crucial moment.

Nevertheless, May's leadership should be safe, since nobody in the Conservative Party is strong or outstanding enough to mount a challenge - especially since the Brexit negotiations are such a hot potato that it can potentially torpedo one's political career.

So who would be foolish enough to pick up the issue now, as it would be like putting one's head on the Tower of London's chopping block?

After nine months of talks, London and Brussels concluded the first phase in the divorce bill, dealing with the rights of 4.2 million Britons and Europeans, who have made lives in each other's territories, and the need to avoid a hard border with Ireland.

Neither side has been specific about the size of the bill, even though it has to be outrageously huge to satisfy the Eurocrats. When the sum is finalized, it will be a tough sell.

Now that the negotiations are entering the next phase, what could be the outcome? In the best-case scenario, Britain can remain in the single market and customs union, which would mean the free movement of goods, services and people, as well as agreed tariffs. But Brexiters may be unable to live up to their promise to regain control of laws, borders and capital.

The worst-case scenario will see no deal made, resulting in disruption to economic activities and business connections, although London will be politically free.

In between are the so-called Norway and Canada models.

In the former model, the Scandinavian country remains in the single market but outside the customs union, which may be the second-best outcome for Britain.

Under the Canadian model, British traders may face low or zero tariffs, but not for the services industry, which would be bad for London as an international financial services center.

Lying ahead for May are great challenges.

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