The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Theresa May must pass her Brexit deal next week. The odds are against her.

British Prime Minister Theresa May must persuade at least 75 lawmakers to change their minds.
British Prime Minister Theresa May must persuade at least 75 lawmakers to change their minds. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images)
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LONDON — If Britain is to leave the European Union in Theresa May’s “orderly Brexit,” then the British prime minister must quickly succeed at something she is not very good at: convincing lawmakers to back her.

Specifically, the British leader — who is famously secretive, blinkered and tenacious — must somehow, in a matter of days, persuade at least 75 lawmakers who twice voted against her Brex­it withdrawal deal to change their minds about the most important decision facing Parliament in a generation.

If she fails, Britain will face a no-deal Brexit, or years of delay, or a canceled departure. Her political future will be imperiled.

May must first persuade 10 socially conservative, religious, Union Jack-waving, queen-loving members of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party to back her play. That should have been easy, because this group strongly supports leaving the E.U., but it is not, because the unionists fear May’s deal will divide them from the rest of the United Kingdom.

With the March 29 deadline for Britain to leave the European Union approaching, here are explanations of three terms that help make clear what's at stake. (Video: Sarah Parnass, William Neff/The Washington Post)

Then May must cajole dozens of zealous, ideologically driven, hardcore Brexiteers in her own Conservative Party to do the same. These are Tory rebels who not only shot down the prime minister’s deal in two landslide losses but tried unsuccessfully just a few months ago to oust her from 10 Downing Street.

If all that were not enough, May must then woo at least a handful of members of the opposition Labour Party. Except many in the Labour Party want to remain more closely connected to the E.U. — and want to see May fail, to make way for a general election they hope to win.

Her many critics on Friday were predicting her doom. Her supporters hope she can accomplish the near-impossible over the weekend.

“Almost everything now is in the hands of the British Parliament and Theresa May’s government,” European Council President Donald Tusk said Friday, just hours after European leaders approved a brief, staggered delay for Brexit.

Under the new deadlines, if May gets her withdrawal agreement through Parliament next week, Britain will leave the bloc on May 22. If May strikes out, then Britain has until April 12 to decide what it does next.

What will Britain do next? Even May does not know, according to reports from the European leaders’ summit in Brussels on Thursday. 

A vote against May’s deal would almost certainly usher in a period of what Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt called “extreme unpredictability.”

That’s British English for crazy times.

House of Commons Speaker John Bercow threw a wrench into the works earlier this week — a lifetime ago in British politics — saying May could not offer a third meaningful vote, dubbed MV3, unless the deal was “significantly” different. 

May’s spokeswoman on Friday predicted Bercow will allow it, as the deal has been modified with new E.U. deadlines, timetables and fresh choices.

How does May find support for her twice-defeated deal? Remember, it was defeated by a whopping 230 votes in January — the largest defeat in British parliamentary history. It was rejected againthis month, losing by a smaller but significant margin of 149 votes. In the January vote, 118 Conservatives voted against the deal; in March, it was 75 Conservatives.

So May needs to win over at least 75 lawmakers who previously opposed her deal.

She has spent the past weeks sweet-talking the Democratic Unionists from Northern Ireland, the Protestant loyalists who remain fearful they will someday be cut off from the United Kingdom, and ultimately be absorbed by or confederated with the Republic of Ireland to their south.

“When it comes to the outcome from Brexit, the key thing that the DUP will have to have are assurances that the U.K. union is not under threat,” said political sociologist Katy Hayward in Belfast. “That is the red line that unites the party.”

Cynics predict the DUP could be bought with money. After all, the party agreed to prop up May’s minority government after her disastrous loss in 2017, in part, for a billion pounds of government spending in Northern Ireland.

While money will probably be on offer, there are limits.

Nigel Dodds, the deputy leader of the DUP, said in a statement that nothing had changed as far as the withdrawal agreement was concerned.

Dodds, like many lawmakers, was stung by May’s assertion in a speech Wednesday night that the shambles of Brexit is all the fault of Parliament — and not hers.

“Lectures by the prime minister putting the blame on others cannot disguise the responsibility her government bears for the current debacle and the fact that her agreement has been twice overwhelmingly rejected in Parliament,” Dodds said.

“The DUP are about as staunch, as belligerent in politics, as you are going to get,” said Naomi Long, leader of the cross-community Alliance Party in Northern Ireland. “They see cooperation as capitulation.”

But whips and watchers who count votes in Parliament assume that if May manages to turn the unionists her way, some of the hard-line Brexiteers in the Conservative Party will cross over.

Earlier this week, Jacob Rees-Mogg, a high-profile Brexiteer, said he was still making up his mind but would not back May’s deal unless the DUP did. Rees-Mogg said he would prefer no deal, but if the options on the table were May’s deal vs. no Brexit at all, then he would opt for May’s deal.

For the prime minister, that is a win.

Still, there is thought to be a group of 20 to 30 Brexiteers who will not vote for May’s deal no matter what, meaning that she also needs support from backbench renegades in the opposition Labour Party.

“The formula is complex,” said Mujtaba Rahman, an analyst with Eurasia Group who closely tracks votes. “But she needs all three constituencies. The DUP is necessary, but not sufficient.” 

At the moment, he said, “I don’t see any scenario where it will work. She hasn’t mobilized the support.”

“She has no credibility with any constituency — with her own cabinet, with her party, with the opposition, with Parliament more broadly and with Europe, who aren’t convinced her deal will pass. I’m not convinced her deal will pass,” he said.

Part of the problem is that any political promises May makes to the unionists in Northern Ireland won’t mean as much if she is deposed.

Also, some lawmakers are — very quietly — hoping May stumbles and falls. 

The Labour Party is holding out for a soft Brexit, which could probably muster sufficient numbers in Parliament, while hardcore Tory Brexiteers are holding out for a no-deal Brexit, which is still on the table.

Both Labour leaders and Tory right-wingers are hoping to come to the rescue — later — to take over from May and save Britain from its fate.

The near-daily scenes of chaos have renewed speculation over May’s leadership prospects and how long she might continue if, as it is widely expected, the vote fails and Parliament starts to seize control of the Brexit process.

It has not gone without notice that Boris Johnson, the former foreign secretary and one of May’s rivals, has had a recent haircut and lost some weight.

Ferguson reported from Belfast.

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