Conservative MPs fear Theresa May isn’t being straight with them - they’re right

The Prime Minister is saying things about the transition period that simply aren't true - no wonder her pro-Brexit MPs smell a conspiracy.


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Theresa May continued to store up trouble for herself and her successors with another press conference in which she refused to come clean with journalists or her MPs about the nature of Brexit.

The topic this time was the transition period – the temporary arrangement in which the United Kingdom will sit between formally leaving the European Union before the new free trade deal between the UK and the EU is negotiated – or as May prefers to call it the “implementation period”. This is not an accurate way of describing it: nothing will be implemented in this period as it will be used to negotiate the new arrangement. The currently agreed transition period lasts 21 months – seven months shorter than the average 28-month period it takes to negotiate a trade deal. No-one believes that the trade talks between the UK and the EU are progressing at anything like average speed, let alone above average speed. In addition, there are many structural reasons why the pace of negotiations will likely slow – looming elections from 2019-21 across the European Union – while if current polling is to be believed, it is difficult to see how the ruling Conservative Party will manage to secure a big enough parliamentary majority to decisively resolve the Brexit question any time soon.

So the transition period is almost certainly going to have to continue for longer than the advertised 21 months. But that has nothing to do with the question of the Irish border, as May claimed today. The difficulty there is that the DUP doesn’t want a fallback arrangement – the so-called “backstop” – that only applies to Northern Ireland but the Conservatives don’t want a fallback arrangement that applies to the United Kingdom indefinitely. The Irish government doesn’t want a fallback that is of limited duration: so instead there is deadlock. This is not a problem that can be solved by extending transition for another three, four, five six years let alone by a couple of extra months. It is a problem that will only be solved by one of the negotiating groups involved backing down.

Sooner or later, a Conservative Prime Minister – perhaps Theresa May but more likely her successor – is going to have to explain why they are extending transition, if the United Kingdom even gets that far. No wonder pro-Brexit MPs worry that May is deceiving them – they are right to think so. Her explanation for what transition is, why it is needed and how long it will last simply isn’t the case.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.