No win­ners in PM’S dan­ger­ous endgame

The New European - - Agenda -

Af­ter two years that have felt like Ground­hog Day, we’re rapidly ap­proach­ing crunch time on Brexit – if the bare bones of an exit deal aren’t in place within the next fort­night, there will be no No­vem­ber sum­mit and no re­al­is­tic prospect of get­ting a com­pre­hen­sive deal be­fore the UK crashes out of the EU.

Ex­pec­ta­tions are mount­ing that Theresa May is ready to make some ma­jor con­ces­sions to the EU – in ex­change for su­per­fi­cial and pre­sen­ta­tional ones in re­turn – to se­cure a deal, likely largely on the ba­sis of the exit terms and back­stop agreed in De­cem­ber, with the fu­ture trad­ing re­la­tion­ship left some­what vague.

May is will­ing to make these con­ces­sions be­cause in large part she has shown no view in any di­rec­tion on Brexit: dur­ing the cam­paign she backed Re­main, and since then has shifted with the views of her party – and what she per­ceives as her voter base – with re­ally no sense of what she, as a leader, ac­tu­ally thinks of any of it.

This could be framed as a virtue, as prag­ma­tism, in that it may be the only way to get the exit from the EU that Leavers want – any ide­o­logue could find them­selves con­strained by the fact that none of what the Brexit vot­ers were promised is pos­si­ble, whereas May is happy to de­liver a dog’s break­fast as she never quite be­lieved in any of them.

The prob­lem is that May ap­pears to have done none of the ground­work to sell such a deal: her govern­ment re­lies on the DUP – an un­re­li­able ally at the best of times – and they seem van­ish­ingly un­likely to sup­port any ef­fec­tive back­stop deal which would en­able any kind of reg­u­la­tory or cus­toms bor­der be­tween North­ern Ire­land and the rest of the coun­try (de­spite be­ing happy to de­liver weaker hu­man rights to North­ern Ir­ish ci­ti­zens, deny­ing them same-sex mar­riage).

May has also failed to win over much of her cab­i­net and dozens of her back­benchers to any kind of re­al­is­tic deal, and doesn’t seem to be mak­ing much pub­lic ef­fort to do so now – in pub­lic, at least, con­ver­sa­tion re­volves around the Che­quers pro­pos­als, de­spite politi­cians and the pub­lic all be­ing aware that deal is dead.

Given all of this, we can only con­clude that May is de­lib­er­ately run­ning out the clock: even if progress is made in the next few weeks, there will be lit­tle pub­lic noise in that di­rec­tion. What­ever com­pro­mises are reached will only sur­face at the last pos­si­ble mo­ment, likely af­ter some the­atri­cal all-night de­bat­ing in No­vem­ber. This is May’s bid to hold the coun­try hostage to save her premier­ship: she would like to present a deal as the only al­ter­na­tive to a cliff-edge, no-deal Brexit. If there is any time, any win­dow of op­por­tu­nity for peo­ple to think and come up with ri­val ideas, then any com­pro­mise is surely doomed.

This is one hell of a gamble: with the DUP an al­most cer­tain ‘no’ vote, and hard-right Brex­i­teers in the Con­ser­va­tive party con­fi­dent they have 40 or so con­firmed ‘no’ votes, May would rely on Labour MPS to save her govern­ment and save the Brexit deal.

She will also be re­ly­ing on whit­tling down her back­bench ‘no’s, es­sen­tially through sheer in­evitabil­ity: a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum would likely take at least 22 weeks to or­gan­ise, ac­cord­ing to a UCL study, while even a gen­eral elec­tion would, in prac­ti­cal terms, take at least two months – and likely longer.

With a lack of al­ter­na­tive op­tions, May is hop­ing some

Brex­i­teers blink, and that some wa­ver­ing Labour

MPS in mar­ginal seats de­cide to save the coun­try from it­self and avoid a cliff-edge

Brexit. This may not go as well as she hopes: Labour would be deeply fool­ish to tie them­selves to a com­pro­mise deal which will be de­tested by Re­main and Leave vot­ers alike.

The tricky thing with

May’s gam­bit is that by de­sign it leaves us with no

Plan B: given she is run­ning out the clock, al­most cer­tainly de­lib­er­ately, what hap­pens if the vote doesn’t go her way?

There is no obli­ga­tion on ei­ther re­bel­lious Con­ser­va­tives or mod­er­ate Labour MPS to do what the prime min­is­ter wants, and in re­al­is­tic terms if it goes wrong, it’s May and her min­is­ters who will get the blame.

This is the roadmap for the next few weeks: we’re go­ing to see lots of largely phoney the­atrics be­tween the UK and Brus­sels as the two par­ties cir­cle a com­pro­mise text, ideally with some as­pects to help May sell such a deal at home – this will be a false war, but will play out on the front pages.

The real bat­tle will hap­pen af­ter, in par­lia­ment: May is get­ting ready to ask MPS to vote against their own in­ter­ests, for a deal they won’t like. We have spent most of the time since the vote for Brexit ne­go­ti­at­ing with our­selves in­stead of the EU, and we’ve got nowhere do­ing it. May can do noth­ing else but hope for a break­through.

Photo: Jack Hill - WPA Pool / Getty

BIG GAMBLE: Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May

JAMES BALL’S

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