What does Theresa May’s resignation mean for Brexit?

Brexit consumes Prime minister May political career resigns June 7
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Theresa May is finally leaving Downing Street, but that need not mean that her Brexit deal is dead.

After three years in which Mrs May has grappled almost daily with the challenge of sealing an exit deal with the EU, her resignation is widely thought to increase the likelihood of a no-deal Brexit, not least because she was in effect forced from office by Eurosceptics in her own Conservative party.

But in the shorter term, the UK could still be headed for one more extension to the formal Article 50 exit procedure, which would delay Brexit beyond the now scheduled date of October 31.

Given that the EU insists that no other exit treaty can be negotiated, Mrs May’s deeply unpopular deal still cannot be written off. It could yet outlive her turbulent premiership.

Here are answers to some of the big questions about what Mrs May’s resignation means for Brexit.

Will the new Conservative leader — and prime minister — definitely be committed to taking Britain out of the EU?

Yes. None of the MPs standing to replace Mrs May wants either to reverse the Brexit decision or to hold a second referendum.

The eventual victor would have to appeal to the 100,000 Tory activists who choose between the final two candidates. An overwhelming majority of those activists are committed to either a hard Brexit — along the lines of the EU’s trade agreement with Canada — or a no-deal exit.

But Ken Clarke, the Europhile former Tory chancellor, issued a note of caution on Friday morning. He said many Brexiters in his party “seem to imagine that the party will now unite behind the [leadership candidate] that most resembles [the Brexit party leader] Nigel Farage.”

He added: “I don’t think it’s going to be like that.”

Would a new leader have a better chance of getting a Brexit deal approved by the Commons than Mrs May?

Probably yes.

Britain’s new leader will be firmly rebuffed by the EU if he or she tries to reopen Britain’s withdrawal treaty, including the so-called backstop to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland. This last measure is overwhelmingly unpopular with Eurosceptic Conservative MPs, who fear it would trap the UK into a customs union with Brussels.

The EU insists no revision of the treaty is possible. “[The] withdrawal agreement cannot be reopened, cannot be renegotiated,” a European Commission spokesman said on Thursday.

However, a new UK prime minister could declare victory after renegotiating the less substantive part of Mrs May’s deal: a non-binding political declaration, which sets out the future framework for the UK-EU trade relationship.

EU leaders and the commission have repeatedly underlined their willingness to revise this part of the agreement. Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, has said that it could be redrafted within days, or even hours.

Mrs May tried to follow the route of renegotiating the political declaration, but only belatedly. A new leader with a fresh mandate would, almost by definition, stand a better chance of selling such a strategy to MPs.

For instance, Boris Johnson, who led the successful 2016 Brexit referendum campaign, has already voted for Mrs May’s exit treaty once, in a Commons vote in March. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that he could push it through as prime minister.

Does Mrs May’s political demise raise the chances of a no-deal Brexit?
Yes. Several candidates, such as Dominic Raab, former Brexit secretary, clearly prefer leaving the EU without a deal to leaving with Mrs May’s agreement. If Mr Raab were to win the leadership, a no-deal Brexit would become very likely.

A majority of MPs have repeatedly voted against no deal and would likely do so again. However, the Institute for Government think-tank says it would be almost impossible for MPs to stop a prime minister who is determined to implement a no-deal Brexit.

“Parliamentary procedure offers no route, and the only apparent way to blocking no deal — a vote of no confidence — would be a massive gamble for Tory MPs,” said the IfG’s Maddy Thimont-Jack.

But since UK public debate is becoming increasingly polarised between no deal and a second referendum, the chances of another EU vote may also be on the rise, particularly if the next Tory leader decides that another such poll is preferable to calling an early general election.

What will the EU make of any new leader?

Patience with the UK parliament has long run dry in EU capitals, and this week’s events have only heightened that sense of frustration.

Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president, told CNN on Wednesday that he was “getting fed up because we are [merely] waiting for the next extension”.

In a sense, the identity of Mrs May’s successor is of only limited importance to the EU. Whoever it is will face immediate pressure from Brussels and national EU capitals to clarify whether they intend to win parliamentary backing for the exit treaty or to risk a no-deal Brexit.

Will the EU grant the UK more time to avoid a no-deal Brexit?

The faultlines between the EU’s capitals over how far to go to avoid a no-deal Brexit were laid bare in April, when leaders debated Mrs May’s reluctant request to postpone Brexit.

French president Emmanuel Macron rejected any extension into 2020, saying Brexit cast an unacceptable shadow over the entire European project, while German chancellor Angela Merkel said the UK should be given every chance not to crash out without an agreement.

In an interview with Le Soir this week, Mr Macron suggested he had little appetite to grant more time. He told the Belgian paper that, by repeatedly choosing the “easy option” of extensions, “we are betraying at the same time the British and the interests of the EU”.

The European Commission and the European Council of EU member states are due to change leadership in the days and weeks after Britain’s currently scheduled exit on October 31.

While the Brussels institutions would be keen not to deal with the fallout from a no-deal exit at that point, the position remains that the UK would have to set out what it would do with more time, whether it would be to hold a general election, a second referendum or another tactic to get the deal through.

Ultimately, whether or not there is a no-deal Brexit is in the hands of Britain. The likes of Mr Macron would need serious persuasion to grant another extension; the big issue is whether a hard Brexiter prime minister would be willing to provide it.

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