No-deal Brexit looms as Northern Irish kingmakers, Tories say they won't support Theresa May’s deal

A survey of Britain's Conservative Party members have shown that most prefer leaving the European Union with no deal to the plan negotiated by Prime Minister Theresa May.
A survey of Britain's Conservative Party members have shown that most prefer leaving the European Union with no deal to the plan negotiated by Prime Minister Theresa May.PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (REUTERS, NYTIMES) - With less than three months until Britain is to leave the European Union (EU), the Northern Irish party that props up Prime Minister Theresa May’s government said on Friday (Jan 4) that it would not support her Brexit deal but that businesses should be relaxed about leaving the EU without an agreement. 

“In fact we’re more alarmed about what is coming out from the EU and especially the Irish government,” the Democratic Unionist Party’s Sammy Wilson said when asked if he was reassured by signals from Brussels. 

May still hopes to get her deal through parliament, though even members of her own Cabinet admit privately that to do so she will need to make significant changes and win over lots of opposition lawmakers. 

If the lower house of the British parliament does not approve May’s deal then the world’s fifth-largest economy will leave the EU without one on March 29 at 2300 GMT as the date is set in law – the 2018 Withdrawal Act. 

The Northern Irish DUP, whose 10 lawmakers have propped up May’s minority government, has demanded she ditch the Irish backstop, something the EU and May have ruled out.  The DUP’s Wilson told BBC radio that the Irish backstop was a “con trick” and added that farmers and businesses should be totally relaxed about a no-deal Brexit. 

“If anyone should be worried about the tariffs on beef and sheep then it should be the Irish because of course, we, the United Kingdom are net importers of food,” Wilson said. 

Facing the defeat of her deal last month, May postponed a parliamentary vote on it, pledging to seek “legal and political assurances” from the EU.  Those efforts appear so far to be in vain.

The EU said it will not reopen the negotiation though it signalled it might offer some concessions. 

May needs 318 votes to get a deal through parliament yet 117 of her 317 lawmakers voted against her in a confidence vote on Dec. 12.  So she will need the support of some of the Labour Party’s 257 lawmakers or to win over swathes of her own party and the DUP.

But a survey of Conservative Party members released on Friday shows most of the ruling party's members prefer leaving with no deal to the plan negotiated by May.

Rejecting May's proposal, respondents shrugged off warnings that a cliff-edge departure could lead to steep price hikes and shortages of food and medicine, fallout predicted by economists, analysts and, increasingly, members of the Cabinet out plugging the deal.

The poll of 1,215 Conservative Party members, or Tories, carried out in late December as part of a continuing academic study, found them in no mood for compromise.

May delayed a vote on her unpopular Brexit deal last month, hoping the pressure of the approaching March 29 deadline would force lawmakers to accept that her deal is better than the alternatives, like a no-deal exit or a second referendum.

Parliament resumes next week, and the vote is scheduled for the week beginning on Jan 14.


Yet May will be hard-pressed to build support for the compromise within her own party, judging by the findings of the Party Members Project, which is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

Given the choice between a no-deal exit, May's deal or remaining in the EU, 57 per cent preferred no agreement, 23 per cent preferred May's compromise deal and 15 per cent opted to remain in the EU.

"What's really noteworthy is how pro-no-deal they are, and how unconvinced by their own government's argument that it would be very, very difficult to manage and economically damaging," said the study's leader, Tim Bale of Queen Mary University of London. "They seem to believe that actually, it will be a good thing for the economy." The results are at odds with public opinion as a whole. When a broad group of voters were asked to choose between the same options, 42 per cent opted to remain in the EU, 25 per cent chose no deal and 13 per cent backed May's agreement. (The rest said they would not vote, didn't know or declined to answer.)

There is a yawning gulf in the perception of the economic effect of leaving the union without an agreement.

Government officials have warned that a no-deal exit could clog ports, starve factories and disrupt supplies of food and medicine. At a Cabinet meeting before Christmas, Gavin Williamson, the minister of defence, agreed to put 3,500 troops on standby. The environment minister, Michael Gove, on Thursday warned farmers that British exports to the EU could be subject to 40 per cent tariffs, and that inspections could cause delays, posing a threat to small farmers.

But 76 per cent of Conservative party members contacted for the poll dismissed those warnings as "exaggerated or invented," and 64 per cent maintained that a no-deal exit would have a positive rather than a negative effect.

"In some ways, what we see is a kind of repeat of what we saw under David Cameron, which is a leadership unable to convince its own members to back the party line," said Bale, referring to the former prime minister.

The risks of a no-deal exit, he added, had been played down by right-wing news outlets like the Telegraph and Express tabloids, and by "the celebrity politicians so many of them admire."

The government itself has walked a fine line on projecting the fallout, trying to simultaneously warn the public of danger and reassure it that the state is prepared.

The same survey found equally strong but opposing views among members of the Labour Party. In a poll of 1,035 members, 72 per cent said they want the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, to support a second referendum on EU membership. Corbyn himself is a longstanding critic of the EU, and has seemed reluctant to take that step.

Among Labour members, 89 per cent said they believed a no-deal Brexit would have a negative effect on the economy in the medium-to-long term. And 82 per cent said that warnings of severe short-term disruptions, such as food shortages and price increases, were realistic, as opposed to 35 percent of the electorate as a whole.