May 24, 2019 / 9:49 AM / 25 days ago

Breakingviews - May’s replacement will face same Brexit dilemma

British Prime Minister Theresa May reacts as she delivers a statement in London, Britain, May 24, 2019. REUTERS/Toby Melville

LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - Brexit has claimed its second British prime minister. Less than three years after she took over from David Cameron following the country’s vote to leave the European Union, Theresa May on Friday announced she would step down on June 7. But her replacement will face the same dilemmas.

May’s short term in office will be remembered for many mistakes. Her dogmatic interpretation of the Brexit referendum result – particularly the insistence on ending free movement for EU workers – ruled out softer options. She triggered the two-year timetable for leaving the EU in 2017 before reaching a workable consensus. A calamitous election campaign then wiped out her parliamentary majority. Even so, she stubbornly tried three times to sell her deal to hardliners in her party, and only opened talks with the opposition Labour party after her authority had been completely shredded.

Given the eurosceptic leanings of the Conservative party’s 100,000-plus members, the next leader will almost certainly have to promise a tougher approach. The likely success of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party in Thursday’s elections to the European Parliament will heighten the electoral panic.

Yet a leader such as Boris Johnson, the former foreign minister who is the runaway favourite to succeed May, will face many of the same restraints. The chances that he or another prime minister can extract more favourable terms from the remaining 27 EU members are close to zero. The best he or she can probably hope for is another extension beyond the current deadline of October 31.

That logic points to a showdown with Brussels followed by a painful and chaotic “no-deal” Brexit. But the parliamentary arithmetic that confounded May is unchanged. The House of Commons has repeatedly signalled its strong opposition to leaving the EU without a deal. Any prime minister who tried to force it through would certainly face – and probably lose – a confidence vote.

Confronted with an unchanged picture in Brussels and Westminster, the new prime minister may have little choice but to face the voters. But with Britain still an EU member more than three years after it voted to leave, and the Brexit Party appealing to Conservative supporters, an election would also be risky. It’s quite possible Brexit could claim a third prime minister.

Breakingviews

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