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An air of unreality surrounds the whistle-stop tour of Europe on which Theresa May, the UK’s beleaguered prime minister, embarked on Tuesday.

The ostensible purpose of her consultations with EU leaders is to secure concessions sufficient to persuade rebellious MPs in her ruling Conservative party not to torpedo her Brexit deal. Yet the two underlying assumptions of her diplomatic gambit are flawed.

The first assumption is that EU leaders will go the extra mile to help her, after her last-minute decision to avoid a House of Commons vote for fear of a humiliating defeat. The second assumption is that, if EU leaders were to be nice to her, the Conservatives’ unruliness would subside and her deal would win parliamentary approval.

On balance, neither of these outcomes is likely.

True, EU leaders will probably find a way to offer Mrs May something, as suggested by Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission president. Few international bodies are more ingenious and experienced than the EU at crafting language designed to sidestep a disagreement among member states.

As Mehreen Khan and Jim Brunsden explain in today’s FT Brussels Briefing, the EU could say, in a declaration accompanying the UK’s withdrawal treaty, that it really, truly, sincerely hopes that the two sides will never use the so-called “backstop”, an instrument for preventing a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.

EU leaders could also suggest a target date for completing a post-Brexit EU-UK trade deal. But these gestures would stop short of revising the legally binding exit treaty. The anger and scorn of Mrs May’s fiercest critics at Westminster would persist.

For the prime minister’s detractors include a vocal minority of pro-Brexit hardliners whose professed concern about the “backstop” and UK-Irish relations is a sham. Their objections to Mrs May’s deal serve as a smokescreen for different ambitions.

This intransigent Conservative minority wants to kill Mrs May’s deal, sever relations with the EU as abruptly as necessary, overthrow the prime minister and replace her with a pro-Brexit purist who, in the next UK election, will drive a metaphorical stake through the heart of Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour opposition’s radical leftist leader.

At times, these hardliners appear to exert an influence over the Brexit endgame that is out of all proportion to their support base among the UK electorate. They occupy this position because Mrs May, in one of her numerous displays of ineptitude since taking over the premiership in 2016, threw away her party’s House of Commons majority one year later in an unnecessary election.

What comes next? Analysts at ING Economics suggest that the fateful House of Commons vote on Mrs May’s deal, revised or not, could be delayed until well after Christmas. But they rule out neither a vote of no confidence in Mrs May’s government nor a challenge to Mrs May’s party leadership.

One can go further, as does Professor Chris Grey in his latest Brexit Blog. “Within the Tory party, it’s the beginning of the endgame of their long European civil war,” a struggle dating back to the 1980s, he writes.

If readers of Brexit Briefing think he is exaggerating, consider the words of the level-headed William Hague, a former foreign secretary and Conservative party leader, in his latest Daily Telegraph column. “The party remains on the edge of its greatest crisis in modern times . . . There is a danger of this party falling apart,” he writes.

Further reading

May’s Brexit retreat exposes a zombie premiership

“On Monday, Mrs May’s emphasis was strongly on the no Brexit outcome. This was no oversight: for the first time in this process, parliament’s Remainers believe they have the upper hand. Her not very subliminal message to Brexit backers is that they are risking what they have worked so hard to secure.” ( Robert Shrimsley in the FT

Despite the chaos, I still think Theresa May can win

“I believe that amid all the chaos, Mrs May and her proposal can still win. I studied her closely yesterday at the despatch box. Most certainly defeated — but I can see no more plausible alternative. The Prime Minister has spent more than two years trying to manage a Brexit that works for the British people. She should be allowed a few more days to salvage concessions from Brussels.” (Peter Oborne in the Daily Mail)

Government’s White Paper scenario cannot be used to inform meaningful vote

“The Committee is disappointed that the Government has modelled its White Paper, which represents the most optimistic reading of the Political Declaration, rather than a more realistic scenario. The Committee is also disappointed that the Treasury has not analysed the backstop and fails to include short-term analysis of any of the scenarios, including impacts on public finances and on regional and sectoral job losses or gains.” (Nicky Morgan, chair of the Commons Treasury committee, on its report on the Brexit deal

Hard numbers

Wages of UK workers rose at the quickest pace in a decade in the three months to October, suggesting Britain’s jobs market remains tight despite Brexit headwinds.

Overall wages rose 3.3 per cent in the August to October period from the previous year, up from 3.1 per cent in the three months to September, according to data from the Office for National Statistics. Regular pay, which excludes bonuses, also rose at a 3.3 per cent clip, from 3.2 per cent previously. The figures exceeded estimates of economists polled by Reuters of 3 per cent and 3.2 per cent respectively. Read more

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