UK ministers fear bloody chapter in Theresa May's Brexit thriller

Theresa May (Photo: Reuters)
As she departs the sweltering heatwave that’s hit London this summer for a break with her husband, Theresa May (right) is — for now — in a position of relative safety.

The U.K.’s rolling Brexit crisis is temporarily becalmed and the British prime minister can afford to take a holiday. What’s certain, though, is that the peace will not last.

When Brexit talks resume in Brussels in mid-August, British and European officials will have just 10 weeks to finalise the complex set of international negotiations before their October deadline. That’s because they need to leave time to ratify whatever agreement emerges in both the U.K. and European Parliaments before Britain exits the bloc on March 29 next year.

It’s a tough ask and in private, ministers and senior officials in May’s team are terrified that the negotiations will fail.

That would mean the U.K. crashing out of the EU with no deal, disrupting trade, creating chaos in financial markets, blocking manufacturers’ supply chains and potentially causing shortages of food and medical supplies. It could be an economic and political crisis unparalleled in the U.K. since World War II.

“I have near zero optimism because I think it is going to be very messy,” said one senior minister, speaking on condition of anonymity because the matter is so sensitive. The prospects of getting an agreement are slim, the minister said. “If we crash out without a deal, it’s going to be a historic catastrophe.”

May’s difficulties boil down to having too many audiences to please, with each holding passionately to principles that can’t easily be reconciled. If she’s to succeed, she must negotiate both a divorce and a future trade deal that keeps pro and anti-Brexit wings of her party happy, while also satisfying the European Commission and 27 other EU governments, who want to protect the integrity of the bloc. EU leaders have agreed to add Brexit to the agenda for an informal meeting Sept. 20, to be hosted by Austria.

There’s almost no overlap in the aims of any of these groups.

Negotiations have stalled because May’s ministers couldn’t agree on what to ask for in a future trade deal with the EU, and the U.K. is fighting with the bloc over how to avoid a hard border with Ireland after Brexit.

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