May’s Rus­sian roulette

With her lever­age cur­tailed, the PM has upped the stakes to a dan­ger­ous level

The New European - - Agenda - JAMES BALL’S DE­CON­STRUCTED

When the ‘euroscep­tic’ Con­ser­va­tive MP John Hayes was given a knight­hood last week, his col­leagues in par­lia­ment seemed less than de­lighted at his good for­tune.

Much of the rea­son for the dis­con­tent ap­pears to be the sud­den­ness of Hayes’ el­e­va­tion – usu­ally hon­ours are only be­stowed to mark the Queen’s birth­day and at the New Year. The cu­ri­ous tim­ing of Hayes’ knight­hood led the more sus­pi­cious among his Con­ser­va­tive brethren to be­lieve he had been bought off to sup­port May’s deal.

“I should men­tion in pass­ing, and just be­tween us,” lead­ing Brex­i­teer MP Mark Fran­cois noted in a scathingly sar­cas­tic let­ter to Hayes – which im­me­di­ately leaked to the press – “that some col­leagues are un­kindly sug­gest­ing that this award is a sign, for those who un­der­stand these things, of ab­so­lute des­per­a­tion by a gov­ern­ment which has ef­fec­tively aban­doned Brexit and now clearly lost the sup­port of the DUP and many of its own back­benchers, to the ex­tent that it is now re­duced to hand­ing out knight­hoods to mal­leable col­leagues.”

Ei­ther Fran­cois’ cyn­i­cism was in er­ror, or No.10 made a mis­take in dishing out a knight­hood be­fore the vote, but ei­ther way if Theresa May hoped Hayes would be grate­ful for his el­e­va­tion, she hoped in vain: Hayes had said he will vote against the deal.

Sus­pi­cions around Hayes’ knight­hood are just the tip of a moun­tain of spec­u­la­tion and ru­mours about the trades and trans­ac­tions May is of­fer­ing, in a bid to pass a deal which few in­formed com­men­ta­tors be­lieve can pass – cer­tainly not on its first time through par­lia­ment. More than 90 Con­ser­va­tive back­benchers have pub­licly said they will not vote for the With­drawal Agree­ment, while Jeremy Cor­byn’s rhetoric on how ter­ri­ble the deal on of­fer is leaves him lit­tle wrig­gle room to change Labour’s pol­icy to sup­port it, or even to ab­stain – if he were ever go­ing to be tempted to do so.

This leaves May in a fe­ro­ciously dif­fi­cult po­si­tion, as most of the tac­tics to pres­sure or per­suade MPS to vote for some­thing they don’t wish to rely on the power of pa­tron­age that the prime min­is­ter wields.

She can of­fer MPS knight­hoods, or peer­ages on re­tire­ment, or even a place on the privy coun­cil. She can prom­ise min­is­te­rial jobs in a post-deal reshuf­fle. As leader of the Con­ser­va­tive party – rather than as PM – she can sug­gest whether or not an MP in a mar­ginal con­stituency will be seen as a pri­or­ity for fund­ing and high-pro­file vis­its or not, which can of­ten spell the dif­fer­ence be­tween vic­tory and de­feat.

All of these pow­ers rely on May’s po­si­tion be­ing seen as se­cure, and on there be­ing suf­fi­ciently few po­ten­tial rebels – there are only so many things you can of­fer all at once be­fore the sys­tem col­lapses. May has nei­ther of those ad­van­tages.

May’s al­ter­na­tive op­tion was to try to cor­ral enough Labour MPS to rebel against their front­bench and ei­ther ab­stain, or bet­ter, vote in favour of her deal as an al­ter­na­tive to a dis­as­trous no-deal Brexit. These ef­forts ap­pear to be dead on ar­rival, as May made no ef­fort to in­volve such Labour MPS un­til the deal was done – leav­ing them to sud­denly be in­vited to ac­cept some­thing they were given no role in build­ing. It is an of­fer that has clearly not ap­pealed to many of them – es­pe­cially as most think even if they did rebel (which they might con­sider), the vote would still be heav­ily lost and their ca­reer would be ru­ined for noth­ing.

That leaves Theresa May – an of­ten pedes­trian politi­cian who gets her way through sheer grind – out of all con­ven­tional of­fers. Try­ing to pass this deal will re­quire her do some­thing very out of the or­di­nary.

The most com­monly-ac­cepted idea May will try is of­fer­ing the same deal to par­lia­ment again, af­ter the EU con­firms it would not re­open or re­con­sider it. This would rely ei­ther on sub­stan­tial po­lit­i­cal panic at no-deal, or a crash in the mar­kets.

How­ever, as few peo­ple ex­pect May’s deal to pass, nei­ther ‘shock’ seems too likely – and po­lit­i­cally it would be dif­fi­cult for Labour to sud­denly ab­stain on a deal it had pre­vi­ously at­tacked so sav­agely.

One way to break the cur­rent dead­lock – or at least break each side’s sense of com­pla­cency – would be to find a means to of­fer up each pub­licly-dis­cussed al­ter­na­tive be­fore vot­ing on May’s deal. This might prove pos­si­ble to do as amend­ments to the deal.

If May could demon­strate there was no par­lia­men­tary ma­jor­ity for an early gen­eral elec­tion, or ex­tend­ing Ar­ti­cle 50, or re­vok­ing it, or hold­ing a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum, she may start to get the panic she would need to get through a deal.

But that would re­quire a huge amount of po­lit­i­cal nerve, and would also re­quire con­vinc­ing par­lia­ment that it is mean­ing­less to vote to re­ject no-deal: par­lia­ment can vote to re­ject no-deal as many times as it likes, but with­out some form of pos­i­tive ac­tion to avert it, it will hap­pen any­way.

May’s fi­nal roll of the dice could eas­ily end up as an early gen­eral elec­tion in­tended as a quasi-ref­er­en­dum on her deal – in the hope it would force Labour to clar­ify its po­si­tion and set up a last­ditch vote to get her plan through. Even this could be blocked: Con­ser­va­tive MPS could eas­ily de­cide they’d rather have an early change of leader than an early elec­tion.

This, then, is the dead­lock: May does still have her tra­di­tional tools of per­sua­sion, but they are blunted – and all the un­con­ven­tional ones come with the high­est of po­lit­i­cal stakes. Theresa May is play­ing Rus­sian roulette on a na­tional scale – and there’s no telling how

that will end.

SUS­PI­CIOUS KNIGHT­HOOD: Con­ser­va­tive MP John Hayes Photo: Getty Im­ages

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.