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Opinion & Analysis

Calm before the Brexit storm

Can Theresa May find a way to rescue her Brexit deal? 

That is the question that dominated the discussion in Westminster and Brussels at the end of a tumultuous week in which the Prime Minister saw off rebels in her party who called a vote of no confidence in her leadership.

Mrs May won two thirds of the vote, but 117 of her MPs still signalled their belief that she is not up to the task of leading the UK - and by extension, Gibraltar - out of the EU.

The easy reading of that result is that Mrs May is mortally wounded and her days as Prime Minister are numbered.

Ahead of the vote, Mrs May told MPs she would not seek to lead the Conservatives at the next general election, which is due - in theory at least - in 2022. But anyone who has followed this saga closely knows that Mrs May is not one for giving up any time soon.

A different reading of the confidence vote is that, once again, the hard Brexiteers in her party have failed to get their way. 

We have been told repeatedly that she is about to go, yet there she still is. And so is her deal.

So nothing has changed as a result of that leadership election. The bare facts of Brexit are the same, and they are just as stark as they were before.

Article 50 means the UK and Gibraltar will leave the EU on March 29, with or without a deal. That is a legal fact. There are many MPs who would want to avoid a hard Brexit, but right now the only alternative to crashing out of the EU is Mrs May’s deal, for all its faults.

The prospect of a People’s Vote or a second referendum is seductive, but it is not currently a live option. Despite the growing number of voices clamouring for such a move, there is no parliamentary initiative on the table to make it a reality. 

If it happens, a second vote may offer a chance to stop the Brexit steamroller. Or not. The UK remains a divided country and a second vote could deliver the same outcome as the first referendum, increasing the chances of a hard Brexit in the process.

Either way, unless and until someone presses ‘Go’, this is just speculation.

We are left with Mrs May’s deal, or no deal.

Another possibility is that Labour, whose leader Jeremy Corbyn has long been hostile to the EU, moves a parliamentary vote of no confidence in Mrs May’s government. 

If that happens and Labour succeeds, that would likely lead to a general election.

But then what? Depending on who won at the polls, we might be faced with a range of options from remain to hard Brexit to delaying the process and attempting to renegotiate the deal, a prospect riddled with uncertainty and risk, not least for Gibraltar.

A confidence vote in the government might also encourage Conservatives to rally round their leader for fear of letting in a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn. The Democratic Unionist Party, which props Mrs May’s government up in parliament, does not like Corbyn either and would likely back her too.

Which takes us back to her deal or no deal.

Mrs May herself was this week trying to secure additional assurances from the EU in a bid to address concerns around the Northern Ireland backstop. Her belief is that if she manages to obtain those assurances, she might still get her deal through parliament.

But the odds are stacked against her. On Friday, the EU was clearly running out of patience with the entire Brexit affair. “The Union stands by this agreement and intends to proceed with its ratification,” said Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, after Mrs May met EU leaders. “It is not open for renegotiation.”

The EU, however, also signalled its willingness to move swiftly with negotiations on the future trade deal and avoid the so-called Norther Ireland backstop, which many UK MPs believe could lock Britain into the EU’s customs union indefinitely.

Mrs May has kicked any parliamentary vote on her deal into the new year, so she has some time to secure additional guarantees. Assuming, of course, she survives the last days before recess.

If she manages to secure additional assurances on the backstop from the EU, the next key moment will be the vote in the House of Commons.

If she fails, the Prime Minister may yet turn to the people as she is being encouraged to by many MPs on both sides of the house. Or even – one can but hope – revoke Article 50 altogether.

There is an argument that says backtracking on Brexit would be a betrayal of the referendum result.

But the UK is split, public discourse is poisoned anyway and serious, unanswered questions on the validity of the 2016 vote continue to fester.

Stopping Brexit altogether would generate political upheaval, for sure, but at least it would ease the immediate pressure on businesses and the economy.

As John Major put it this week, “the clock, for the moment, must be stopped. It is clear we now need the most precious commodity of all: time. Time for serious and profound reflection by both parliament and people.”

The Prime Minister is due to address the Commons again on Monday and there is talk that Labour may finally challenge her government, perhaps as early as next week. More likely though, Labour will wait until parliament votes on Mrs May’s deal, and almost certainly rejects it.

The consensus among political pundits in the UK is that time is running out for the Prime Minister and that she is up against the wall with few options. But we have heard that sort of talk before, and she is still there. The reality is that everyone is guessing.

It may be that it is too soon to write Mrs May off, or her deal for that matter.

So what does all of this mean for Gibraltar? On one level, not very much.  Chief Minister Fabian Picardo has backed Mrs May publicly and continued to do so this week after the leadership contest, despite taking flak at home for potentially alienating MPs whose support we may require if Mrs May is toppled in the coming days.

But while events in Westminster will have a direct impact on our future, they are beyond our control or ability to influence to any significant degree. All we can do is watch and wait.

For the Gibraltar Government though, the New Year will bring an additional Brexit challenge.

Last month, Mr Picardo told the House of Lords that unless there was a firm deal in place by January 1, Gibraltar would “gear up” its Brexit contingencies.

Much planning has already been done, but the continued uncertainty in the UK means businesses and individuals alike will want to see and understand what preparations have been put in place to ensure an orderly departure from the EU, and what else needs to be done.

For now, the best advice is probably to focus on Christmas and enjoy the festive season.

Because come January, with the March 29 deadline around the corner, the Brexit drama is about to get much tougher.