May needs Christ­mas mir­a­cle or goose is cooked

The Weekend Australian - - WORLD - JACQUELIN MAGNAY EUROPE COR­RE­SPON­DENT

Theresa May emerged from 10 Downing Street on Thurs­day night wrapped in a red woollen coat, flicked on the lights on a huge Christ­mas tree and sung along­side a chil­dren’s choir.

The first Christ­mas carol? Oh Come all Ye’ Faith­ful.

For the British Prime Min­is­ter it was a most sym­bolic mo­ment in her most tor­rid week. As the coun­try is paral­ysed with ex­tra­or­di­nary in­de­ci­sion, May con­tin­ues her des­per­ate, per­haps de­luded, bid to per­suade about 150 Tory rebels to back her Brexit with­drawal bill next Wed­nes­day morn­ing (AEDT).

This comes af­ter a hu­mil­i­at­ing three de­feats in par­lia­ment on Tues­day and an em­bar­rass­ing con­tempt of par­lia­ment find­ing.

She con­tin­ues to in­sist hers is the only way to de­liver Brexit, and a bright, “joy­ful and tri­umphant’’ fu­ture for Bri­tain.

The ne­go­ti­a­tions and sweet­en­ers are not about just win­ning the vote, but rather con­tain­ing the spi­ralling tur­moil of the Con­ser­va­tive Party to avoid such a dra­matic loss that would bring about the end of her lead­er­ship, or even the gov­ern­ment.

On the streets of Lon­don, the only topic of con­ver­sa­tion is con­tempt for politi­cians and what a mess the coun­try has found it­self in. There is both anger at the EU for in­flict­ing un­re­al­is­tic de­mands on the coun­try, and hor­ror at the po­lit­i­cal machi­na­tions un­fold­ing at West­min­ster.

The con­fused fu­ture of Bri­tain — whether there is a deal, no deal, no Brexit, a vote of no-con­fi­dence, an elec­tion, a new prime min­is­ter — is al­most too much to han­dle. May has de­liv­ered the worst deal, a mish­mash to try to unite the coun­try, yet it sat­is­fies no one.

Re­main­ers and Brex­i­teers are united in their fierce op­po­si­tion to the deal, which would give the EU the abil­ity to hand­cuff Bri­tain to Brus­sels in­def­i­nitely, without any say.

Yet there ap­pears to be no plan B, and so far par­lia­ment has no con­sen­sus as to the al­ter­na­tives.

In the queue to at­tend Michelle Obama’s talk at Lon­don’s Royal Fes­ti­val Hall on Mon­day night, peo­ple were swap­ping tales of doom amid cliff-edge trad­ing con­di­tions if there was a no Brexit. The pes­simism is pal­pa­ble.

Euro­pean mi­gra­tion has al­ready de­clined, yet the vac­uum is filled by non-Euro­peans. House prices across the land have plum­meted. In Lon­don, the pre­dic­tion of a 30 per cent drop has al­ready hap­pened.

Anec­do­tally, busi­nesses are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the worst Christ­mas trade in years.

Peo­ple are stock­ing emer­gency sup­plies of medicines and food, such is the very real fear of im­pend­ing chaos.

On Thurs­day, May called her clos­est cab­i­net col­leagues to Downing Street for a sur­prise pep talk and strat­egy meet­ing. One of the party’s most se­nior fig­ures, Gra­ham Brady, hinted at the pos­si­ble way for­ward — by in­tro­duc­ing an amend­ment to her bill to give re­as­sur­ance about the dreaded Ir­ish back­stop so that the party can come in be­hind her.

But he warned that if there was no such amend­ment, “there was no point pro­ceed­ing to a vote’’.

Tory of­fi­cials were can­vass­ing op­tions to de­lay the vote to give May more time to win sup­port, but it seems a moot point.

Does she push back the tim­ing to try to win over a few more? The gulf is so great, the re­turn of a few in­di­vid­ual rebels won’t make any dif­fer­ence.

Does she plan for one of her col­leagues to ta­ble one of the six al­low­able amend­ments to her bill — which if passed, would mean her bill wouldn’t be sub­ject to such a dev­as­tat­ing con­clu­sion? Such an amend­ment would have to be con­sis­tent with ap­prov­ing the with­drawal bill as a whole. As such, it would be un­likely to at­tract much ad­di­tional sup­port.

If the amend­ment is rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent, such as the one planned by Labour MP Hi­lary Benn, it would give the gov­ern­ment 21 days to set out a plan of ac­tion.

Benn’s amend­ment re­jects the Prime Min­is­ter’s deal; re­jects the pos­si­bil­ity of a no deal; and guar­an­tees par­lia­ment a proper say in what would hap­pen next.

Tory MP Do­minic Grieve had a sim­i­lar amend­ment ac­cepted on Tues­day, un­der which par­lia­ment, which has sym­pa­thies to­wards Re­main, would be able to ta­ble amend­ments if the May deal fails.

Par­lia­ment’s flex­ing of its power has vir­tu­ally elim­i­nated the no-deal op­tion and in­creased the odds of a se­cond ref­er­en­dum or even a Nor­way-style Brexit agree­ment (ac­cess to the sin­gle mar­ket but also full move­ment of peo­ple) if ne­go­ti­a­tions with the EU were to be re­opened.

With so many pos­si­ble out­comes, the pub­lic, al­most in a state of shock, has hi­ber­nated un­til a clear way for­ward emerges. But it’s a mis­take to be­lieve that the bit­ter Brexit di­vi­sions have in any way dis­ap­peared — even dur­ing the fes­tive pe­riod.

AFP

British Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May at 10 Downing Street for the switch­ing on of the Christ­mas lights

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