Ides of March for British PM

Mrs. May in a last-gap bid for her Brexit deal

In the long and winding journey since the June 2016 referendum to Leave the European Union, Britain has reached a truly watershed moment for a decision which brooks no further delay. Indeed the country, the parliament and Prime Minister Theresa May herself are facing, in Shakespeare's words, the Ides of March. Knives have been out for too long and unlike Julius Caesar's moment, there is open rebellion in the street. In full knowledge of the impending challenge, nay inviting it, Mrs. May has named March 12 and 13 for a round of decisive votes in parliament.

Her political survival is once again at stake and her challenger this time could be Amber Rudd, the work and pensions secretary, earlier rivals like Boris Johnson having been left behind. She is supported by two ministerial colleagues Greg Clark, the business secretary, and David Gauke, the justice secretary. The defiance by the trio has been open. The three had co-authored an article in the Daily Mail arguing that it would be "better to seek to extend Article 50 and delay our date of departure rather than crash out of the European Union on 29 March."

Rudd and her supporters have extracted the third option of extension of EU divorce date by some months or even longer to extend negotiations. The option had been ruled out earlier by Mrs. May who had stubbornly stuck to her preferred deal or no-deal crash out.

The possibility of this third option had been unambiguously mentioned seven months ago by this writer and published in the millennium post issue of last August one under the headline "Stretching into extra time" using the analogy of a football match going into extra time for a decider. Right now it indeed looks a pretty strong possibility.

Last-minute negotiations for a slightly amended deal or extension have restarted this week with Britain's Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay and Attorney General Geoffrey Cox meeting EU officials in Brussels in search of guarantees over the backstop plan to avoid border checks in Ireland. An utterly disunited kingdom under prime minister May is engaged in last-gap negotiations over a divorce after staying in the EU for 46 years.

The Withdrawal Agreement under Article 50, or Brexit in the popular lingo, includes the thorny Irish 'backstop' clause which allows Britain to remain in the EU customs union until a way is found – such as a future free trade arrangement – to ensure that the Republic of Ireland's border with Britain's Northern Ireland remains open. The backstop is the insurance policy designed to avoid a hard border between the two parts of Ireland. But its opponents fear it would bind the UK into an EU dictated customs union indefinitely, many think permanently.

Mrs. May's original two-way offer to parliament and country envisages a deal with EU which includes, among other elements, the Irish backstop or no deal at all under which Britain just walks out of EU with all the consequential disadvantages and costly disruptions. The opposition to such a two-way deal or no-deal plan was so severe that it was rejected by parliament by 432 to 202 votes on January 15 this year. But it was a non-binding vote and she was allowed next week to come up with a so-called Plan B. Since that vote Mrs. May has climbed down to accept the possibility of extending or delaying Brexit by a short period. How short that could be is still a moot point.

Mrs. May's fiercest critics are from her own Tory party, especially the nearly 100-strong group of MPs led by Jacob Rees-Mogg, highly erudite and ambitious son of the former editor of The Times, the late Lord William Rees-Mogg who failed to become an MP himself, Jacob, when he was eleven years old, is believed to have set himself the target that he'd be a millionaire at the age of 20, a multi-millionaire by 40 and then Prime Minister by 70, "when I've made enough money to afford to waste some on politics". He is just a few weeks shy of 50.

The pro-Brexit European Research Group of Rees-Mogg faction has somewhat softened its stand and says it is up to Attorney General Geoffrey Cox, who is in talks with the EU, how he achieves an exit mechanism on the backstop. They had previously been demanding specific legal changes to the agreement.

However, even more formidable opposition lies abroad among EU member states and their negotiators. The European Council President Donald Tusk's recent broadside against Brexiteers as deserving of " a special place in hell" remains loud and clear. Just days earlier Tusk had made it clear: "The backstop is part of the withdrawal agreement, and the withdrawal agreement is not open for renegotiation." French President Emmanuel Macron has also said the agreement is "not renegotiable", while Irish deputy prime minister Simon Coveney said the backstop arrangement remained "necessary" despite the British vote.

But Mrs. May is not taking no for an answer and will do her best to extract some concession from the EU till the last moment. With just about three weeks to go, the chances of a no-deal with all its resultant disruptions are as strong as is the hope of Brexit deadline being extended by a few months or even a year. Calls for a new referendum are also in the air. No bets in this last stretch.

As things stand at the moment, Mrs. May has promised MPs another vote on her deal by March 12 - and if that fails MPs will get a vote on whether the UK should leave without a deal, and then, by March 14, a vote on whether Brexit should be postponed.

The UK is set to leave the European Union on March 29 with a 20-month transition period, if the deal goes through.

(Subhash Chopra is the author of 'Kipling Sahib – The Raj Patriot' and 'India and Britannia – An Abiding Affair.' The views expressed are strictly personal)

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