The Guardian view on Brexit in par­lia­ment: re­spect the ma­jor­ity

The Guardian Australia - - Opinion / The Guardian View -

When it comes to build­ing al­liances over Brexit, Theresa May never misses an op­por­tu­nity to miss an op­por­tu­nity. Her first big chance came in the pe­riod im­me­di­ately af­ter be­com­ing prime min­is­ter. As a known Euroscep­tic who had given tepid sup­port to EU mem­ber­ship, Mrs May might have bro­kered a grand Brexit com­pro­mise, re­flect­ing the close­ness of a 48:52 ref­er­en­dum re­sult. In­stead she drew hasty red lines – chiefly to ex­clude mem­ber­ship of the sin­gle mar­ket – that made co­op­er­a­tion with former re­main­ers and soft Brex­iters prac­ti­cally im­pos­si­ble.

There was a sec­ond chance af­ter the 2017 gen­eral elec­tion. The prime min­is­ter asked for a per­sonal man­date based on the Brexit path she had trod­den, and was re­buffed. A com­pete re­think was the ob­vi­ous rem­edy. In­stead, Mrs May cob­bled to­gether a deal with North­ern Ire­land’s Demo­cratic Union­ists – a party that can­not claim even to rep­re­sent the ma­jor­ity Brexit view of the elec­toral ju­ris­dic­tion in which they com­pete, and which es­pouses di­vi­sive, re­ac­tionary views in other ar­eas. The prime min­is­ter once again sig­nalled con­tempt for Bri­tain’s po­lit­i­cal main­stream.

If the ob­jec­tive of that “con­fi­dence and sup­ply” ar­range­ment was to pro­vide Mrs May with a par­lia­men­tary cush­ion in the event of a close run vote on a fi­nal Brexit deal, it is fail­ing. The DUP on Wed­nes­day sig­nalled readi­ness to vote against a Con­ser­va­tive bud­get if its own Brexit red line – the re­jec­tion of new cus­toms reg­u­la­tions be­tween main­land Bri­tain and North­ern Ire­land – is vi­o­lated. That might be sabre-rat­tling, but it would be risky for Mrs May to pre­sume a hith­erto in­vis­i­ble strain of DUP mal­leabil­ity in her cal­cu­la­tions.

The par­lia­men­tary arith­metic looks highly prob­lem­atic ahead of the vote re­quired to ap­prove the Brexit deal that Mrs May is ne­go­ti­at­ing. She has al­ready lost the sup­port of many Tory MPs, per­haps as many as 40. Whips might bring the num­ber down, but it only takes seven Con­ser­va­tive back­bench rebels to erad­i­cate the no­tional To­ryDUP ma­jor­ity.

With num­bers that tight, Down­ing Street has taken to woo­ing Labour MPs. The hand­ful who have been pro-Brexit all along can prob­a­bly be re­lied on to lend a hand. Oth­ers in leave-dom­i­nated con­stituen­cies might be bid­dable. But in­cen­tives to prop up a Con­ser­va­tive prime min­is­ter tout­ing a sec­ond-rate, hard Brexit are few. Mrs May is re­ly­ing on fear and ex­haus­tion to get her through the up­com­ing par­lia­men­tary ordeal. She hopes to build a coali­tion of dread: those who do not want Jeremy Cor­byn to be­come prime min­is­ter, or Brexit de­layed, or aborted af­ter an­other ref­er­en­dum, or a chaotic lurch out of the EU with no deal. This is a shabby, mis­er­able way to try to set­tle the big­gest de­ci­sion about the na­tion’s fu­ture for a gen­er­a­tion or more.

The al­ter­na­tive would be for Mrs May to grasp, in the com­ing weeks, her third big op­por­tu­nity to broaden and soften the def­i­ni­tion of what Brexit can mean. If the prime min­is­ter wants a ma­jor­ity in par­lia­ment for a deal, the sim­plest way to achieve it is by ne­go­ti­at­ing some­thing ac­cept­able to a ma­jor­ity of MPs. That would re­quire recog­nis­ing the eco­nomic and strate­gic value of long-term align­ment with the

EU: a fu­ture re­la­tion­ship closer to the Nor­we­gian model than the Cana­dian one touted by Tory hard­lin­ers. Such a shift would re­quire dis­so­lu­tion of the fa­mil­iar red lines, and po­lit­i­cal dex­ter­ity en­tirely out of char­ac­ter for Mrs May. It does not look like a choice she would make vol­un­tar­ily. It might yet be one forced on her by cir­cum­stance.

It was un­wise to em­bark on a hard Brexit that was cer­tain to di­min­ish the UK’s stand­ing in the world and erect point­less bar­ri­ers to trade. It was un­wise to stick stub­bornly with a model even af­ter it had failed a gen­eral elec­tion test of pop­u­lar­ity. It is not sur­pris­ing that Mrs May’s Brexit vi­sion is one that a ma­jor­ity of MPs strug­gle to en­dorse. She has taken a nar­row, par­ti­san, short­sighted ap­proach to an is­sue that re­quired a broad-based coali­tion of sup­port. By that path, and with for­mi­da­ble tenac­ity, she has man­aged to sur­vive in of­fice. It is a pal­try achieve­ment com­pared with the cost the prime min­is­ter’s des­per­ate meth­ods might in­flict on the coun­try.

Pho­to­graph: PA

‘Theresa May has sig­nalled con­tempt for Bri­tain’s po­lit­i­cal main­stream.’

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