The UK‘s future and how – or whether – it will leave the European Union has been thrown into further uncertainty following Prime Minister Theresa May‘s announcement that she will quit as leader of the ruling Conservative Party on June 7.
Although May will stay in office as a lame duck prime minister until her party chooses her successor – a contest is set to conclude by July – whoever takes over will become Britain’s new prime minister.
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Among the frontrunners are right-wing Brexit supporters such as Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab, victory for whom could ensure a vision of Brexit that further polarises an already divided country.
What May’s departure means for Brexit?
Britain remains scheduled to leave the EU, with or without a withdrawal agreement, on October 31.
May failed thrice to secure parliamentary backing for a formal deal she thrashed out with Brussels and her party is at odds over what to do.
A sticking point for many Conservatives is the “backstop” inserted in May’s deal to avoid a threat to the peace process in Northern Ireland, which would keep the UK in a form of customs union with the EU.
“May’s departure does not solve anything. Her successor will still have to deal with the question of how you negotiate the UK’s exit from the EU,” David Phinnemore, professor of European politics at Queen’s University Belfast, told Al Jazeera.
“All indications are that the EU is not going to reopen the terms of the withdrawal agreement.”
Phinnemore said there is “very little indication” that any of May’s potential successors have a credible plan to take Brexit forward.
Tim Bale, professor of politics at London’s Queen Mary University, said the Conservatives expect the EU to be flexible on an issue of solidarity with the Republic of Ireland, which sees the backstop as essential.
“The EU is not going to sell out Ireland on this issue because it would send a terrible message to other small member states that, when the chips are down, the larger states will betray their interests.”
‘No-deal’ Brexit more likely?
In the absence of a formal withdrawal agreement approved by the parliament, Britain will leave the EU with “no deal” – a scenario that economists warn could be very damaging.
Whoever becomes the Conservative prime minister is unlikely to persuade the EU to reopen negotiations, even by threatening a “no-deal” Brexit.
But while May’s departure now makes “no deal” more likely, there is stiff opposition to this in parliament and many MPs could try to stop it by demanding a second referendum on Brexit.
“May’s departure paradoxically strengthens the possibility both of a no-deal crash out from the EU and a second referendum to prevent that from happening,” said Bale.
Despite the bravado of the Brexiteers advocating a “no deal”, it cannot be taken for granted that May’s successor will embrace that scenario.
“Once they realise the consequences of a ‘no deal’, I don’t think whoever is in power by then would want to go down that route,” Phinnemore said.
Can new PM revive May’s deal?
A new prime minister determined to avoid a “no deal” could find themselves in May’s boots – trying to get a deeply unpopular exit deal through parliament.
It is a “distinct possibility” that May’s successor will end up pushing a version of her Brexit agreement, said Phinnemore.
“What we have experienced over the last couple of months is everybody criticising May’s deal, indicating what they don’t like about it, without giving a realistic sense of what they would seek if they were in her position.”
A key issue will be whether candidates such as Johnson will be more successful at forging a compromise among the MPs since the former foreign secretary’s negotiating skills are still untested.
Will new PM change tack on ‘backstop’?
The backstop is the thorniest issue in the Brexit equation, because the Conservative government is propped up by the Northern Irish DUP which detests the idea.
Attention could, therefore, shift to relations between the DUP and May’s successor, and how he or she chooses to interpret the backstop.
It has two elements: propositions to keep either the entire UK in a form of customs union with the EU or just Northern Ireland.
“It comes down to what’s more important to many of the Brexiteers. Is it maintaining Northern Ireland in exactly the same relationship as the rest of the UK or is it avoiding the UK going into a customs union,” Phinnemore said.
What May’s departure means for British politics
May’s key failure has arguably been her inability to reunite a country divided by the Brexit referendum and to opt instead for a more partisan approach. In the 2016 referendum, 52 percent of the British people voted to leave the EU but 48 percent voted to stay.
“The lesson of this period has been that referendums are divisive binary mechanisms which require whoever takes over to try and bring the country together,” Bale said.
“If you go for a partisan solution and favour one side, then you will come a cropper, just as Theresa May has.”
The Brexit process has also confirmed a rightward drift in the ruling party, something Bale thinks could accelerate under Johnson and Raab.
“But I would make one caveat. I do not believe Boris Johnson has an ideological bone in his body. He will simply do what he thinks is in the best interests of Boris Johnson, and that can change significantly over time,” said Bale.
“As London Mayor, he was very much a social liberal, and it’s only recently since he has been back in parliament and he has looked across the Atlantic at Trump that he has reinvented himself as a populist politician.”
When Bale was asked what might happen if the next PM modelled himself on Trump, he said it would further polarise British society.
“It would mean that the culture wars going on in America will be imported lock, stock and barrel to the UK as well,” said Bale.
“We are going to see a coarsening of political rhetoric and we are going to see a premium put on performance rather than actual policy success.”