Theresa May resigned as Conservative Party leader on Friday, marking an end to a tumultuous three years at the head of U.K. politics. She will remain in her prime ministerial post only until a replacement is elected and the failure to deliver Brexit is already being scripted as her legacy.
Members of Parliament (MPs) voted down her proposed “withdrawal agreement” for a third time at the end of March, but May’s departure may not necessarily mean that her blueprint for pulling the U.K. out of Europe will be completely discarded.
The withdrawal agreement — a 585-page document that outlines how the U.K. will leave the EU in March — is causing division among society and lawmakers.
“The withdrawal agreement is not Theresa’s personal property, it stays in place” said Brexit Programme Director at the Institute for Government, Jill Rutter in a phone call to CNBC Wednesday.
“The EU didn’t regard itself as negotiating with the transient British Prime Minister, it regarded itself as negotiating with the U.K. government,” added Rutter.
Since agreeing a draft withdrawal plan with May, European Union leaders have consistently claimed that talks will not be reopened.
Just last week, Jean-Claude Juncker revealed that he was “crystal clear” with Mrs May that “there will be no renegotiation.”
Whether the EU can maintain this hard-line stance remains to be seen but regardless of who becomes the next U.K. leader, it seems certain they will be tackling the future relationship with Europe under the guise of the withdrawal agreement already drawn up under Mrs May.
“The withdrawal agreement is there, it’s not a Theresa May withdrawal agreement. The UK government has agreed this, and the PM got her cabinet to support it. So, the first issue a new prime minister has to make clear is what are they going to do with the withdrawal agreement that is there,” said Rutter.
As they rally support for their campaigns, Conservative prime minster candidates have been circling around three options: Ignore the withdrawal agreement, renegotiate it, or ask parliament again to ratify it unchanged.
Hardliners who say they don’t fear leaving without any sort of deal such as Esther McVey have advocated essentially ditching the agreement entirely, arguing the best course of action is to “actively embrace leaving without a withdrawal agreement”.
Boris Johnson, Sajid Javid, Jeremy Hunt and others have all expressed that they seek specific changes to withdrawal agreement (the Irish backstop in particular), and potential ‘no-deal’ if renegotiations fail.
The backstop plan is a legally-binding insurance policy to ensure there is no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland whatever the outcome of future trade talks.
Current Health Secretary Matt Hancock and International Development Secretary Rory Stewart have essentially accepted the withdrawal agreement as negotiated by Theresa May, urging instead for focus to be placed on the legally non-binding ‘political declaration.’
The ‘political declaration’ moves beyond the divorce deal and attempts to outline future issues such as ongoing U.K.-EU trade and security.
Currently, a ‘no-deal’ exit is the legal default if no arrangement is made by October 31st.