Sep 17, 2018

May's way or the highway for Brexit

British Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA Images via Getty Images

British Prime Minister Theresa May issued her most forceful edict yet on Brexit today, telling the BBC that the "soft Brexit" Chequers plan she negotiated in July, which involves keeping close economic ties to the European Union, is the only possible way forward — even though it's "strongly opposed" by the EU.

Why it matters: With just over six months to go until Brexit day, her statement is sure to provoke the hard-line Brexiteers in her own Conservative Party by essentially forcing them to choose between backing her own moderate Brexit vision or a "no-deal" scenario, which could wreak economic havoc on the U.K.

  • May also said that she's "a little bit irritated" at the rumors of a leadership challenge from within her party ranks as she attempts to negotiate a Brexit solution. But today's statements aren't likely to make life easier for her on that front. The Chequers plan forced high-profile resignations from the most visible Brexiteers in her Cabinet, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Brexit Secretary David Davis, upon its announcement.

Never one to keep quiet, Johnson fired back in his weekly column in The Telegraph, headlined, "We are heading for a car crash Brexit under Theresa May's Chequers plan."

  • "The whole thing is a constitutional abomination, and if Chequers were adopted it would mean that for the first time since 1066 our leaders were deliberately acquiescing in foreign rule."

At issue is the Irish backstop — determining the economic alignment between Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K., and Ireland, which is a member of the EU — and whether there would be a hard border between the two areas after Brexit.

  • May is adamant that a hard border cannot be allowed, advocating for "friction-free" movement of goods enabled by close economic ties to the EU. She told the BBC, "The only proposal that has been put forward that delivers on them not having that hard border and ensures that we don't carve up the United Kingdom is the Chequers plan."
  • Boris argued in his column that Chequers undermines the fundamental aim of Brexit: "We are volunteering that the whole of the U.K. must remain effectively in the customs union and large parts of the single market until Brussels says otherwise."
  • Michel Barnier, the EU's chief Brexit negotiator, blasted the Chequers' Irish backstop plan earlier this month: "If we let the British pick the raisins out of our rules, that would have serious consequences."

The bottom line: While it seems that May has finally upped the ante on Brexit, both her Conservative Party and the EU are in strong positions to call her bluff moving forward.

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