Vi­sion­less, stub­born Theresa May

Theresa May is her­self in a stronger po­si­tion than she could have pre­dicted a year ago, but now faces the most per­ilous months in Bri­tain’s post-war era

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - 2018 REVIEW - De­nis Staunton

When Theresa May sat down at the end of her last prime min­is­ter’s ques­tions of the year on Wed­nes­day, the Con­ser­va­tive benches be­hind her erupted in a loud dis­play of tribal unity. Their roars had noth­ing to do with May’s per­for­mance but were in re­sponse to Jeremy Cor­byn’s al­leged mouthing of the words “stupid woman” in ref­er­ence to her.

Cor­byn in­sisted that he said “stupid peo­ple”, re­fer­ring to Tory back­benchers, and af­ter an emer­gency de­bate that af­ter­noon and a busy day for pro­fes­sional lip read­ers, the drama fiz­zled out. It was, how­ever, a pleas­ing note on which to end the year for a prime min­is­ter who finds her­self in a stronger po­si­tion than she could have pre­dicted when it started.

Af­ter win­ning last week’s con­fi­dence vote, May is im­mune from fur­ther chal­lenge to her lead­er­ship of the Con­ser­va­tive party for 12 months. And she ends the year amid a tem­po­rary ces­sa­tion of hos­til­i­ties against her from the DUP and her own back­bench Brex­i­teers.

The prime min­is­ter be­gan 2018 with a cabi­net reshuf­fle that served to high­light her di­min­ished au­thor­ity when a num­ber of mid-rank­ing min­is­ters re­fused to move. Weak­ened by the cat­a­strophic 2017 gen­eral elec­tion that saw the Con­ser­va­tives lose their par­lia­men­tary au­thor­ity, May was un­der con­stant threat from within her own party through­out 2018.

Re­al­ity check

The prime min­is­ter’s weak­ness was a boon to Con­ser­va­tive Brex­i­teers led by Jacob Rees- Mogg, who left her in no doubt that her fate was in their hands. They cheered when she re­jected the draft with­drawal agree­ment pub­lished by the EU in late Fe­bru­ary, which set out the de­tails of the North­ern Ire­land back­stop.

But the prime min­is­ter al­lowed the re­al­ity of Brexit to in­trude a few days later when she ac­knowl­edged that Bri­tain faced hard choices about its fu­ture re­la­tion­ship with the EU and that leav­ing the sin­gle mar­ket would af­fect busi­ness. She had claimed in the past that Bri­tain could have the “ex­act same ben­e­fits” in trade with the EU af­ter Brexit as it does now.

May pro­posed vary­ing lev­els of reg­u­la­tory align­ment with the EU for dif­fer­ent sec­tors and a cus­toms fa­cil­i­ta­tion ar­range­ment that fell short of a full cus­toms union. By June, she was propos­ing an al­ter­na­tive ver­sion of the back­stop that would see the whole of the UK, rather than just North­ern Ire­land, re­main in a cus­toms union with the EU.

In early July May re­treated with her cabi­net to her coun­try res­i­dence at Che­quers to agree a new plan for Bri­tain’s fu­ture re­la­tion­ship with the EU that would see it re­main in full reg­u­la­tory align­ment for goods and agri­cul­ture, with a cus­toms ar­range­ment which would treat Bri­tain and the EU as “a com­mon cus­toms ter­ri­tory”.

Brexit sec­re­tary David Davis and for­eign sec­re­tary Boris John­son re­signed in protest against the Che­quers pro­posal, adding heft to the Brex­i­teer in­sur­gency on the back­benches. If May was hop­ing for sup­port from EU lead­ers, she got a rude awak­en­ing in Septem­ber when they flatly re­jected Che­quers at a meet­ing in Salzburg.

Con­ces­sions

Al­though the prime min­is­ter com­plained that she was am­bushed at the meet­ing, she pro­voked the con­fronta­tion by telling the other lead­ers that Che­quers was a take-it-or-leave-it of­fer rather than a first step to­wards a deal. She would mis­judge the EU 27 again at a sum­mit in De­cem­ber when she told them to “keep noth­ing in re­serve” in terms of con­ces­sions on the back­stop. They told her they would not – and that the warm words in their for­mal con­clu­sions was all she would get.

By De­cem­ber, May had agreed a with­drawal agree­ment and po­lit­i­cal dec­la­ra­tion with the EU but was un­able to se­cure a ma­jor­ity for it at West­min­ster. Fac­ing al­most cer­tain de­feat, she post­poned a vote on the deal un­til mid-Jan­uary while she sought “re­as­sur­ances” from Brus­sels that the back­stop would be tem­po­rary if it is used at all.

With her deal fac­ing likely de­feat, the prime min­is­ter re­jects the idea of a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum, and a no- deal Brexit would be eco­nom­i­cally cat­a­strophic.

With no ap­par­ent way out, May trudges for­ward into 2019 at the head of a di­vided gov­ern­ment and a hos­tile par­lia­ment into the most per­ilous months in Bri­tain’s post-war history, vi­sion­less, stub­born and in­de­fati­ga­ble.

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