Theresa May's government could collapse over Brexit turmoil, says John Curtice

Written by Mark McLaughlin on 22 February 2018 in News

Top political scientist Sir John Curtice predicts further Brexit turmoil for Theresa May, including the possibility of a collapsed government and a general election 

John Curtice - David Anderson/Holyrood

Theresa May faces a fight for her political future as crunch Brexit talks bring the prospect of another general election at every turn, Britain’s leading elections expert has suggested.

Sir John Curtice said there is a “non-trivial probability” that Europe will reject May’s plea for a bespoke trade deal and plunge her Brexit strategy into turmoil.

If she survives the European Council vote in March, the Prime Minister faces an internal struggle over fallback trade legislation which Tory Eurosceptics see as EU membership “by the back door”.

If May makes it to the negotiating deadline in October and parliament rejects the final deal her government is “dead, it’s over and we’re going into another general election”, Sir John said.

“We’re just about to hit the crunch stage,” the Strathclyde University political scientist told a conference hosted by council procurement organisation Scotland Excel.

“With the European Council due to take place in the third week in March, we will probably begin to get an idea of what the EU stance is.

“It may be that the EU will be willing to undertake a bespoke relationship and negotiate one, and we can get something close to what both governments want.

“But, shall we say, there is a non-trivial probability that they will come back and say: ‘Well, actually, it’s either Norway or Canada, which do you prefer?’”

May has rejected any off-the-peg EU deals, such as European Economic Area (EEA) membership like Norway or a Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) like Canada.

 If Europe rejects May’s “deep and special partnership” then Britain will face some “fun and games questions”, Sir John said. 

“Can the UK Government continue to cohere against that backdrop or does the government collapse and then we have another general election?

“If we get into negotiations and the government coheres but there is serious disquiet among sections of the Conservative Party as to whether it is a softer deal or a harder deal, the government ends up in trouble in the vote in parliament which has to take place in October.

“That also, by the way, assumes that the government doesn’t run into trouble with another vote that is due to take place on trade.”

Tory Eurosceptics are reportedly considering a rebellion over the Taxation (Cross Border Trade) Bill to maintain alignment with EU regulations in the Republic Of Ireland.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, chairman of the hard Brexit European Research Group (ERG), warned “we don't want to stay in the EU by the back door”.

The European Commission's chief Brexit negotiator has set an October 2018 deadline for the end of Brexit talks with the UK, to give the EU time to ratify the deal in time for Britain’s exit in March 2019.

Sir John said: “Frankly, if the government loses the vote in October I think it’s dead, it’s over and we’re going into another general election.

"In the meantime, the crucial question will be: ‘What is the stance of the Labour Party?’

“Does the Labour Party, at any point between now in October, because public opinion has shifted — which it hasn’t done so far — embrace the idea of a second referendum?

“It’s not going to do so at the moment, so public opinion will have to shift before it does so. It has proved very difficult to shift, but by that point who know what will have happened.

“In part it’s to do with the negotiations with the European Union and how that pans out. In part, it depends literally on parliamentary politics and then it also depends on public opinion.

“At the moment, public opinion is not particularly congenial to the idea, but if that begins to shift the rest of it is sufficiently fragile — so who knows?”


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