After surviving a no-confidence vote on January 16, British Prime Minister Theresa May has reached across party lines in an effort to redefine the UK’s negotiating position with the EU, but it is not clear that Britain is ready to move forward with a revised scheme to manage the withdrawal as the UK government only has 71 days and 46 parliamentary sessions left before the March 29 Brexit deadline.
May began her consultations with party leaders shortly after the no-confidence vote. According to reports, she has spoken with the Liberal Democrats, Scottish National Party, Greens, and Wales’ Plaid Cymru. May also met with Northern Ireland’s Protestant-led Democratic Unionist Party and hardline Conservative backbenchers but has yet to meet with the firebrand leader of the opposition, Labour head, Jeremy Corbyn.
Corbyn said that he would not engage in talks with the government before May committed to taking a hard Brexit option off the table.
The government is now expected to return to the parliament with a new proposal that will define its negotiation position. Its options include calling a second Brexit referendum, applying to extend the March 29 deadline, and leaving the EU with no deal. For the time being, the government seems to be tilting towards requesting an extension of the deadline, but a consensus on that position has yet to have been established.
A motion to extend the deadline will be opposed by Conservative backbenchers, who believe that the UK must pass on the burden of reaching a compromise to Brussels or leave without a Withdrawal Agreement.
Other Conservative MPs would like May to make a substantive concession, which would see the UK remain in a Customs Union with the EU. This would allow the government to draw support from the ranks of the Labour Party and open the door to hammering out a solution to the freedom of movement problem between the UK and Ireland. Staying within the Customs Union would avoid having to establish a hard border with customs checks between Ireland and the UK. Moreover, it would allow the UK to avoid paying contributions to the EU budget even as it collects tariffs on its behalf.
Whether the EU would be willing to accept freedom of movement for Irish citizens alone is questionable. More significantly, the UK, itself, would have limited scope for independent trade deals, a prospect which most government ministers object, particularly amongst a number of Labour MPs who would be opposed to a Customs Union as it would limit their ability to take the controversial step to nationalise industries or subsidise specific sectors.
A third bloc of parliamentarian and cabinet ministers want May no negotiate a so-called time-limit Northern Irish backstop that would later develop into a Canada-style free trade deal with the EU that would require a hard border in Ireland, which Dublin would never concede.
Some lawmakers want a Norway-style relationship with the EU, but this has not been adopted as an official position of any parliamentary group as the Norway model implies full regulatory alignment with the Single Market, as well as freedom of movement, which is vehemently opposed.