The draft agreement of the terms of the UK’s transition period after leaving the EU, announced on 19 March, translates an incomplete political agreement into legal text. It does not offer much more clarity on the final settlement, however, especially regarding the Irish border. While the EU still needs to approve the draft, the enduring incoherence and lack of clarity in the UK’s position after nearly two years of debate and division drives this uncertainty.
The shock results of the Brexit referendum and the 2017 general election established a fragile political equilibrium; the intraparty divisions exposed by Brexit offered multiple factions the means, motive and opportunity to topple the government, but the risks of doing so remain unacceptably high for all of them. The government has avoided contentious legislation for fear of rebellion, contributing to political paralysis, most acutely with regard to negotiating the final Brexit settlement.
Infighting in Labour had inoculated the government to an extent, but its shift to supporting a customs union has given Europhile Conservative MPs leverage. Theresa May has aimed to keep both pro-Brexit MPs and voters happy, but this strategy is less tenable as the Article 50-mandated exit day approaches. The compromises and trade-offs inherent in a complex deal with diverse stakeholders ensure that almost every detail will provoke opposition; the transition agreement immediately prompted all 13 Scottish Conservative MPs to threaten to withdraw support over fisheries policy. As the negotiations progress to more sensitive issues, government stability will suffer over the coming year.