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It’s Back to Work (and Brexit) for Britain’s Parliament

Eight things we learned over the summer.

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Summer’s over and it’s back to work this week for U.K. politicians. Here are eight things you should know as Parliament resumes, starting with Brexit and a debate on the repeal act that will convert all existing European Union law into British law.

May is secure for now

There was a point in June when it looked like Prime Minister Theresa May might not make it to the end of the week. She did, and she now seems fairly stable. She’s helped by the fact that for the Conservatives keeping May in place is less painful than removing her. There is also no obvious replacement. Boris Johnson, the perpetual pretender to the throne, has now been foreign secretary for a year, with little sign of the enhanced gravitas that his supporters have always argued he’d display if he was only given a serious job.

But she won’t fight the next election

The other reason May is safe is that she’s promised Tories that she’ll go when they ask her to.

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May.
Photographer: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg

Granted, she said the opposite while on a visit to Japan last week, but few in the party took May at her word. The Sunday Mirror’s claim that it knew the precise day in 2019 that’ll she’ll go (Aug. 30, if you’re marking your calendar) also raised smiles, but the timing itself is plausible. By that point the U.K. will have formally left the EU and the job she was picked to do could be considered over.

The Brexit standoff continues

Summer is typically considered the ‘silly season’ in British politics but many in Westminster have worked through July and August, getting ready for the third round of Brexit talks. They ended last week with another impasse over money and citizens’ rights. Some think that the U.K. is setting itself up for a showdown between May and the other leaders at an October summit where all will be revealed.

But at least there’s consensus developing

May has been pretty quiet and in her absence, some of her most senior ministers appear to have buried their differences and mapped out some kind of path to Brexit. They agree a transitional arrangement will be needed, and that the U.K. is going to have to pay something to the EU as it leaves. Significantly, this hasn’t led to outrage from the hardliners.

Craig Oliver, former director of communications to David Cameron, May’s predecessor and the man who called the 2016 referendum, finds this noteworthy: “On the transition period, it’s quite startling how much they’re prepared to swallow.”

Until that awkward moment when its ideas were dismissed

While being careful not to spell out exactly what it wants, Brexit Secretary David Davis’s team has set out what it sees as the options on a range of charged issues, including paving the way for a legal compromise whereby EU judges may continue to have a say on U.K. affairs.

EU negotiators sneered at these 11 policy papers, finding them vague at best and not to be taken seriously. The EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier said at a conference in Italy over the weekend that British people need to be “educated” about the price the consequences of leaving. Another top EU official today said Britain was ``stupid’’ to vote for Brexit.

Comments like that will sting back home and be played up by the tabloid press.

Still the U.K. has kept quiet on what matters most

The question of the divorce bill is a particularly tricky issue for Johnson, who toured the country on a bus last year promising money would come back from Brussels instead of the other way round. So his public acceptance of the principle in August was an important moment. But the government has done very little to prepare the public for the idea that Brexit means writing a check.

That partly reflects a gap in May’s operation. Most of her communications team quit either before or after the election, and their replacements, where they’ve been found, have barely got their feet under the desks. In the meantime, rumors over the size of the bill keep getting batted down.

Over the weekend, Brexit Secretary David Davis dismissed a Sunday Times report that May has agreed to pay 50 billion pounds ($64.8 billion) over three years as a way to break the stalemate on trade talks. “There are all sorts of stories flying around. It’s nonsense,” he said.

Meanwhile, Labour has found a strategy

The main opposition party is the surprise comeback act of the year. After doing well in an election that was supposed to destroy it, Labour has begun to take a fresh interest in fighting the Tories. Its Brexit spokesman announced mid-August that the party now supported a transition period of four years in which the U.K. stayed inside the single market. It was a cunning move because it would appeal to quite a few Tories in a chamber where May no longer enjoys a majority.

The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill – as it’s formally known – begins its parliamentary journey on Sept. 7. May’s deputy, Damian Green, warned that failure to back the legislation risks handing power to Labour: “No Conservative wants a bad Brexit deal, or to do anything that increases the threat of a Corbyn government.”

And Jeremy Corbyn thinks he can be prime minister

Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the U.K.'s opposition Labour Party.
Photographer: Dario Pignatelli/Bloomberg

Something has happened to the Labour leader since the election. After his near-victory experience on June 8, he’s a man transformed, on a permanent campaigning tour of the nation.

While May was singing ‘God Save the Queen’ in Lake Garda, Italy he was holding rallies in Scotland. He’s also started talking about the possibility of a Labour government in a way that he didn’t before the election. And why not? He’s ahead in the polls and the Tories are struggling on Brexit. By 2022, when the next election is scheduled, they’ll have been in government for 12 years.

Prime Minister Corbyn? Don’t bet against it.

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