In what is now becoming a familiar sight on TV screens in homes across the UK, Theresa May walked out of the door of Downing Street late on Wednesday evening to address the nation.
Feverish speculation that she might call an early general election, having failed to win support for her Brexit plan, had been tempered earlier by the presence of the British government crest on the lectern – a sign that she would not be making a party political statement but speaking as Prime Minister on government business.
The short statement was intended to provide reassurance to a country that seems exhausted by Brexit and shaken by uncertainty.
She called on lawmakers to “put self-interest aside” and “work constructively together” to secure a Brexit deal. Hours earlier, May had survived a confidence vote by lawmakers in the Commons.
Although the margin of victory in that vote was relatively narrow at just 19 votes, the result itself was no surprise, given that even the most rebellious Conservative lawmakers had said they could back the Prime Minister rather than allow opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to take over.
But the vote did change the dynamic on this marathon Brexit process, by forcing May to finally open cross-party talks on finding a deal for leaving the EU that could gain the support of the whole House.
It is extraordinary that, after two and a half years as prime minister, this was the first time she had invited leaders of other parties to take part in discussions about getting Britain out of its Brexit paralysis. Not even losing her majority at the 2017 election was enough to persuade her to try consensus-building, something that her critics regard as a major flaw.
May cannot command a majority in the Commons without Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), but, ever since she pushed ahead with a widely unpopular and problematic Brexit deal agreed with Brussels in November, she also cannot count on the automatic support of her own lawmakers who, outside of confidence votes in their own government, are still in rebellious mood.
If she is ever to win support for any negotiated deal, she needs the backing of a significant amount of opposition lawmakers, led by Corbyn. Otherwise, Britain is leaving the EU on March 29th without a deal.
While May’s Downing Street statement was intended to be about reassuring the population that someone was in charge at a time of political crisis, there was a partisan edge to her words. After listing party leaders whom she had spoken to, she highlighted the Labour leader’s refusal to take part in the new dialogue.
This, after Corbyn had earlier in the day complained that May had not reached out to build a cross-party consensus, seemed like odd wrecking ball behavior from the Labour leader. But Corbyn’s plan is to try to force the Prime Minister to rule out allowing a no deal Brexit, which experts and businesses have warned would cause grave damage to the UK economy, before committing to talks.
What will follow over the next 48 hours is a standoff between May and Corbyn. It will not reassure people watching at home, with just over 70 days to go until Brexit. Nor will it reassure British businesses, who have been warning the government for months that not enough preparation has taken place for a no deal Brexit. Firms have also complained that they are having to spend money on contingency planning for a no deal, with no certainty that they can recoup the costs from the government.
The Daily Telegraph newspaper last night published a leaked transcript of a phone call from the UK Finance Minister, Philip Hammond, to business leaders in which he pledged what he called the “threat” of no deal Brexit would be taken off the table over the coming days, and also raised the prospect of rescinding Article 50, the statutory process which sets the March 29th deadline for Britain to leave the EU.
And if the Prime Minister really wanted to reassure the nation, beyond a statement from her government lectern for presentation purposes, then she should go ahead and take a no deal Brexit off the table. She has been reluctant to do so up until now because pro-Brexit Conservative MPs want to see this hardest of Brexits remain a viable option. But it would be a quick way to end the deadlock.
If May can amass an informal coalition of all parties, including Labour, she no longer needs to worry about the demands of Brexiteer Tories.
It also seems increasingly possible she will have to ask Brussels for an extension of the Article 50 deadline beyond March – perhaps for another nine months – to give more time for a negotiated deal. After a turbulent few days, the dust is beginning to settle in Westminster, but voters will remain far from reassured by the ongoing uncertainty.