Yet again the English Tory party is un­able to deal with the Ir­ish di­men­sion

The Guardian - Journal - - The Guardian -

Osten­si­bly, Theresa May went on BBC Ra­dio 4’s To­day pro­gramme on Thurs­day to ad­dress all the lis­ten­ers. In re­al­ity, how­ever, her aim was to reach an au­di­ence of fewer than 200. The peo­ple she wanted to in­flu­ence are the Con­ser­va­tive MPs who hold her gov­ern­ment’s fu­ture in their hands next Tues­day in the votes on her Brexit deal.

Mrs May’s pitch was nar­rowly fo­cused. She was now “talk­ing to col­leagues” about ways in which par­lia­ment might be in­volved in ac­ti­vat­ing the North­ern Ire­land back­stop – a clause in the with­drawal agree­ment whose pur­pose is to pre­vent the re­turn of a phys­i­cal bor­der in Ire­land fol­low­ing the post-Brexit tran­si­tion be­tween March 2019 and De­cem­ber 2020. MPs might, she sug­gested, be able to choose whether to en­ter the back­stop or ex­tend the tran­si­tion a bit fur­ther. Trans­lated, this meant that Mrs May wanted to ap­pear open to mar­ginal changes in her Brexit deal as a means of per­suad­ing some doubters to vote for it next week.

It was ab­jectly thin stuff. It was not any­thing that can plau­si­bly be pre­sented as a tweak, let alone a rene­go­ti­a­tion, of the Brexit deal – be­cause such a thing is not on of­fer. In fact, these ap­par­ent con­ces­sions are al­ready part of the North­ern Ire­land pro­to­col in the with­drawal agree­ment. The gov­ern­ment’s ex­plana­tory doc­u­ment on the agree­ment, pub­lished last month, says as much. It says, in para­graph 157, that Bri­tain could en­ter the back­stop or opt for a tran­si­tion ex­ten­sion:

“This would al­low the UK gov­ern­ment, with an ap­pro­pri­ate role for par­lia­ment, to con­sider the right ap­proach in the na­tional in­ter­est.” Mrs May, in other words, used her in­ter­view to of­fer a nicely wrapped ver­sion of some­thing that has al­ready been agreed.

Log­i­cally, this might seem to mean that Mrs May will not suc­ceed with this ap­proach to her back­benchers. This is, though, to un­der­es­ti­mate the pres­sures on Tory MPs. Or­di­nar­ily, they – and their lo­cal ac­tivists – want to sup­port the prime min­is­ter and her gov­ern­ment. It re­mains the case that a mi­nor­ity of Tory MPs are so en­trenched in their views for or against Brexit that their votes against her deal were locked down from the start of the whole process. That is why, un­til this week, Mrs May won al­most ev­ery key vote.

Her prob­lem now is with the back­bench MPs who dis­like both the deal it­self and the fuss it has caused, and who have per­suaded them­selves, look­ing at the par­lia­men­tary arith­metic and at the hints that the deal could be tweaked, that they have per­mis­sion to vote against the deal with­out bring­ing the gov­ern­ment down. Pres­sure on these MPs will tighten over the week­end and right up to the vote on Tues­day. Yes­ter­day one former pro-Euro­pean Tory critic, An­toinette Sandbach, agreed to back Mrs May with the words: “It may not be per­fect but it is a good deal.” She is very un­likely to be the last to change her mind. But the larger prob­lem for Mrs May is that she is fight­ing on two fronts, against anti-EU fa­nat­ics who ab­hor ev­ery con­tin­u­ing post-Brexit tie with Europe, and against pro-EU re­main­ers who see a chance of over­turn­ing the 2016 ref­er­en­dum.

Mrs May’s con­cen­tra­tion on the back­stop in her in­ter­view con­firms that en­sur­ing the cur­rent fric­tion­less bor­der in Ire­land has be­come the piv­otal is­sue in the Brexit deal endgame. Jeremy Cor­byn makes this case in his Guardian ar­ti­cle to­day.

The usu­ally tight-lipped Tory back­bench chair Sir Gra­ham Brady said the same yes­ter­day to the BBC.

If noth­ing else, this is an ex­am­ple of English To­ry­ism’s chick­ens com­ing home to roost. The leave cam­paign in Eng­land ut­terly ig­nored the warn­ings in 2016 from Sir John Ma­jor, Tony Blair and oth­ers about the dis­rup­tions that Brexit could bring to Ire­land. North­ern Ir­ish vot­ers, where a ma­jor­ity chose to re­main, could not be so dis­mis­sive. But Mrs May then ig­nored warn­ings that a post-elec­tion deal with the DUP – a party fun­da­men­tally out of step on Brexit with ma­jor­ity opin­ion in North­ern Ire­land and the Re­pub­lic – would come back to haunt her. Not for the first time in Bri­tish his­tory the Tory party is again faced with a choice be­tween pro­tect­ing its nar­row in­ter­ests and what Sir Robert Peel, at the height of the Corn Law cri­sis, called the need to “un­der­stand this Ir­ish case”. Peel did. Mrs May doesn’t.

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