The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With 100 days to go before Brexit, Theresa May is running out the clock

British opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn responded Dec. 19 in Parliament to claims he had used the words "stupid woman" in the House of Commons earlier that day. (Video: Reuters)

LONDON — Tick bloody tock. Britain has entered the last 100 days before the nation is set to abandon the European Union. But in the House of Commons on Wednesday, lawmakers spent the afternoon accusing one another of endless dithering.

They’re right. If Brexit feels interminable, it is because it is.

After yanking a vote on her Brexit deal last week, Prime Minister Theresa May said Parliament won’t get a chance to vote until after the Christmas holidays, during the third week of January. An exact date has not been set.

Jeremy Corbyn, the opposition Labour Party leader, got to his feet Wednesday to charge May with “recklessly running down the clock” in an effort to rob the country of any real alternative to her unloved Brexit deal. “The reality is the prime minister is stalling for time,” Corbyn said.

Alongside her well-known traits of grit, stubbornness and secrecy, May’s future biographers may add brinkmanship.

Whether by cunning or blunder, she is taking Brexit to the wire — which her admirers and critics say might have been her plan all along.

According to European leaders, everything should have been settled by now. But nothing is settled at all. And unless there is another delay — a possibility — Britain is scheduled to leave the E.U. on March 29.

After two years of talking in Brussels, a final withdrawal agreement was promised by October, then November, then December. Now January.

British Prime Minister Theresa May told members of Parliament to "reflect carefully on what is in the best interest" before a January vote on a Brexit deal. (Video: Reuters)

And the prime minister is offering British lawmakers, especially those in her own Conservative Party, the starkest of choices — her deal or no deal.

Over the holidays, May wants her fellow Tories to have a good long think about the cost of leaving the E.U. with no deal, a scary scenario that envisions economic chaos and canceled European vacations.

May’s cabinet on Tuesday activated a multibillion-dollar emergency plan to prepare for a no-deal exit, including sending letters to 140,000 British companies updating them on what they should do now, beyond pray.

Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson also announced that the British army will place 3,500 troops, including infantry units, on standby, “in order to support any government department on any contingencies they may need.”

What might British soldiers do in a Brexit emergency? Free up police busy dealing with civil unrest, patrol the English Channel to stop goods smugglers and human traffickers, airlift vital medical supplies and use cargo ships to ferry food and fuel.

Is this prudent planning — or something else? Vince Cable, leader of the Liberal Democrat party and an arch opponent of Brexit, described the announcements and their timing as “psychological warfare.”

The Labour leader agreed. “There is still no majority for her shoddy deal in this house. It isn’t stoical — it’s cynical,” Corbyn said Wednesday. He accused May of ramping up contingency plans for a no-deal Brexit as a way to drive through her deal. 

“Stop dithering and put it to a vote!” he bellowed.

Not to be outdone, May accused Corbyn of having no realistic Brexit plan and of stalling himself. 

“It’s a bit rich him standing here talking about dithering,” May responded. “Let’s see what the Labour Party did this week. They said they would call a vote of no confidence, then they said they wouldn’t, then he said he would, then it wasn’t effective.”

When May was finished, Corbyn appeared to mouth the words “Stupid woman.” His party later claimed that he had said “Stupid people.”

Many British hosts of Christmas parties have tried to ban guests from arguing about Brexit — but it is hopeless.

At his annual gathering for diplomats and journalists, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt pointed out that there were bigger problems in the world than Brexit. He mentioned Yemen.

At the Christmas fete at the Irish Embassy in London, a journalist with the Daily Mail had to be escorted from the room after shouting “Brexit!” during the ambassador’s speech. This made the newspapers.

Upon news of further delay, Carolyn Fairbairn, the director general of the Confederation of British Industry, which represents 190,000 businesses, warned that her members were absolutely desperate for clarity.

“Investment plans have been paused for 2½ years,” she said. “Unless a deal is agreed quickly, the country risks sliding towards a national crisis.”

In the Commons debate over Brexit on Monday, Conservative Justine Greening, a pro-Europe former cabinet minister, said: “We have spent 2½ years going round in circles, and we cannot simply go nowhere. We have to now take some decisions about going somewhere.”

Greening added: “People simply won’t understand why this place is packing up and having a two-week holiday when we face the biggest constitutional crisis that this country has had in decades. It is simply wrong. The government has to recognize this.”

May said she will be busy over the holidays seeking “assurances” from European leaders on her Brexit deal. The Europeans have said no meetings are scheduled.

Diplomats in Brussels familiar with the negotiations said that May’s decision to scrap the December date for her parliamentary vote, just days before a summit of E.U. leaders, was a serious miscalculation if her aim was to extract concessions — or even symbolic reassurances — from Europe.

Leaders of Germany, France and the Netherlands have made clear there will not be any substantial changes to the agreement on the table.

By delaying, the thinking goes, Downing Street and the parliamentary whips will have a little more time to cajole, frighten and squeeze lawmakers who do not like May’s deal. They hope that once members are away from the fractious, febrile atmosphere of Westminster, in the bosom of family and friends and frustrated constituents, that upon reflection and a couple of stiff drinks over the holidays, they might see May’s Brexit in a more favorable light.

Yet it is May’s fellow Tories who appear as frustrated as anyone with the continual delays. Anna Soubry, a Conservative lawmaker, bluntly accused May of “blackmail.”

Sam Gyimah, a Tory lawmaker who resigned from May’s cabinet over Brexit, charged that Downing Street had stopped trying to sell May’s deal as a winner and is instead trying to “discredit every plausible alternative as they run down the clock.”

“This is not in the national interest,” he said.

It’s hard to see how May will get her deal through Parliament. And yet it’s still the only deal that Brussels has agreed to and the only one just a parliamentary vote away from getting a green light.

All other possible alternatives — and there are many being floated, including a second Brexit referendum — face even higher hurdles, along with the ticking clock.

Over the coming weeks, May’s deal “will be, I’m sure, like a piñata,” said Rob Ford, a politics professor at the University of Manchester. “It will be repeatedly beaten with sticks from all sides and called dead, over and over again, by all sorts of people who want to call it dead, but that doesn’t make it dead.”

Why? Because it averts a no-deal Brexit, Ford said.

Running down the clock may be the obvious strategy given the many factions and conflicting demands in Parliament. “But I don’t think anyone looking at this is kidded into thinking that there was a strategic genius behind this all along, even if it passes,” said Anand Menon, a professor of European politics at King’s College London.

Menon said May is struggling to sell her deal now in part because she is not a great communicator and she never sufficiently prepared lawmakers or the country for the costly trade-offs of any deal with the E.U. 

“So now,” Menon said, “all of a sudden, people go: ‘Hang on. You promised us frictionless trade.’ And she’s, ‘Oh, yeah, that was impossible.’ And people say, ‘You said no deal was better than a bad deal.’ And she’s, ‘Oh, yeah, I was kidding.’ So it’s only now that those trade-offs are being spelled out in a coherent way, and even now she’s not doing it particularly clearly.”

Michael Birnbaum in Brussels contributed to this report.

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