‘Charg­ing into the mouth of hell may be the san­est thing May can do for her­self and her coun­try’

Half a league, half a league, Half a league on­ward, All in the val­ley of Death Rode the six hun­dred. “For­ward, the Light Bri­gade! Charge for the guns!” he said. Into the val­ley of Death Rode the six hun­dred.

The Observer - - Front Page - @an­drewrawns­ley An­drew Rawns­ley

As Theresa May rides to­wards an all but cer­tain de­feat in parliament this week, some of her more his­tor­i­cally minded col­leagues are liken­ing the prime minister to the doomed Charge of the Light Bri­gade. That’s a lit­tle un­fair. The Crimean war com­man­ders of that sui­ci­dal as­sault on Rus­sian guns didn’t know they had or­dered a disas­ter. By con­trast, Mrs May is fully con­scious that she is gal­lop­ing into the val­ley of par­lia­men­tary death. She has been given am­ple warn­ings that the can­non of the hard Brex­iters are to the right of her, the can­non of the un­rec­on­ciled Re­main­ers are to the left, and the can­non of the op­po­si­tion par­ties are in front of her. She won’t be able to say she wasn’t told. She will not be able to make a fall guy of the chief whip, Ju­lian Smith, and blame him for mess­ing up the maths. He’s done the num­bers and told the prime minister that the chances of suc­cess are bleak.

This is a highly un­usual event in the an­nals of pol­i­tics: a prime minister is head­ing know­ingly to­wards de­feat. The only pre­vi­ous oc­ca­sion in re­cent his­tory that I re­call this hap­pen­ing was when Tony Blair was in the no-one-likes-me-and-I-don’t-care phase of a long premier­ship. He pressed ahead with a vote on an­titer­ror­ism leg­is­la­tion, which his whips had told him he couldn’t win. He duly lost, a de­feat that was a fac­tor in his de­par­ture from Down­ing Street.

So, on the face of it, Mrs May is be­ing wildly reck­less when she in­sists that she will press ahead with the par­lia­men­tary vote on her Brexit deal this Tues­day even though no one thinks she can pos­si­bly win it. She faces de­feat partly be­cause her deal has very lit­tle ap­peal to any­one. The re­port of the all-party se­lect com­mit­tee on Brexit, pub­lished to­day, joins the cho­rus de­nounc­ing the with­drawal agree­ment as the worst of all worlds. Even those Tory MPs who are of­fer­ing sup­port to the prime minister are do­ing so with fingers clamped on noses, back­ing her only be­cause they like the al­ter­na­tives even less or fear con­sti­tu­tional chaos. De­feat beck­ons for Mrs May also be­cause Num­ber 10’s strat­egy for ma­nip­u­lat­ing the ar­gu­ment in its favour has not worked. The prime minister and the cabi­net col­leagues pre­pared to speak for her have framed the choice as “this deal, no deal or no Brexit”. Her hope was that Brex­iters would be scared into line for fear of los­ing their prize and Re­main­ers would be fright­ened into sup­port­ing her deal in dread of Bri­tain go­ing off the edge of the cliff with­out a para­chute. This tac­tic has worked on some MPs, but has had the re­v­erse ef­fect on oth­ers. The Brexit ul­tras will vote against her be­cause they want a no deal or be­lieve that re­ject­ing this agree­ment will mag­i­cally stim­u­late im­proved terms from the EU. The gov­ern­ment’s tac­tics have si­mul­ta­ne­ously em­bold­ened those who seek to soften or re­v­erse Brexit. They will vote against the deal in the hope of get­ting a dif­fer­ent kind of de­par­ture from the EU or paving the way to an­other ref­er­en­dum.

Hav­ing come to their own con­clu­sions that the gov­ern­ment is star­ing at de­feat, some in the cabi­net have been try­ing to per­suade Mrs May to re­treat by post­pon­ing the vote. So has Sir Gra­ham Brady, the im­por­tant chair­man of the 1922 Com­mit­tee of Tory back­benchers and a con­sis­tent friend to Mrs May dur­ing her premier­ship. I thought it sig­nif­i­cant that Sir Gra­ham, nor­mally the acme of dis­cre­tion, went pub­lic with his sug­ges­tion that she ought to de­lay the vote.

As I write, she is dis­play­ing no signs of heed­ing this ad­vice. Many will say that this is char­ac­ter­is­tic of Mrs May, a woman who of­ten acts as if there is no greater virtue than to be stub­born. Yet in this case she may well be cor­rect to cal­cu­late that there is noth­ing to be gained by try­ing to evade the mo­ment of truth in parliament. There is no rea­son to sup­pose that de­lay will sud­denly in­duce a fresh of­fer from the EU that will be so much more palat­able to the Con­ser­va­tive party that it will sig­nif­i­cantly re­duce the co­horts of back­bench rebels. Some have sug­gested that the vote be put off to later in the month in the hope that Mrs May might ex­tract some last­gasp con­ces­sions at the Euro­pean coun­cil meeting this Thurs­day. But members of the cabi­net worry, with good rea­son, that this could set her up for more hu­mil­i­a­tion be­cause Euro­pean lead­ers will give her a dusty an­swer and she will re­turn from Brus­sels with noth­ing.

There are no good grounds for think­ing that a bit more time would give Mr Smith an op­por­tu­nity to sub­stan­tially change the par­lia­men­tary maths. The usual lev­ers of the gov­ern­ment’s en­forcers aren’t work­ing in this con­text. The is­sue is too mo­men­tous; their power is too fee­ble. You can’t threaten a rebel MP with ca­reer-ter­mi­nat­ing con­se­quences if he or she has al­ready re­signed from the gov­ern­ment pay­roll to vote against the prime minister. There are far too many Con­ser­va­tive MPs against the deal and they are far too en­trenched in their views for an ex­tra week or so to make a dif­fer­ence.

Press­ing on with the vote comes with great risks for Mrs May. If parliament re­jects her deal, she will have been re­pulsed on the defin­ing task of her premier­ship. That is big. In nor­mal cir­cum­stances, we would ex­pect the res­ig­na­tion of the prime minister to fol­low a de­feat of such mag­ni­tude. But these cir­cum­stances aren’t nor­mal. Brexit has sus­pended, dis­torted or in­verted the laws of political physics. It is life, Jim, but not as we are ac­cus­tomed to it. Last week the gov­ern­ment was held in con­tempt of parliament for its ini­tial re­fusal to pub­lish the at­tor­ney gen­eral’s le­gal ad­vice on the with­drawal agree­ment. Yet no one re­signed – and there was no ex­pec­ta­tion that any­one would do so. All our usual as­sump­tions about how pol­i­tics is sup­posed to func­tion have been torn apart by the Brexit mael­strom.

In nor­mal cir­cum­stances, a leader would be ex­pected to quit be­cause de­feat on the cen­tral plank of the gov­ern­ment’s pro­gramme would be held to have shred­ded prime min­is­te­rial cred­i­bil­ity. But this rule doesn’t re­ally ap­ply in Mrs May’s case be­cause her au­thor­ity has been shat­tered mul­ti­ple times al­ready. You can’t lose what you’ve al­ready lost.

She might face the chal­lenge to her lead­er­ship of the Tory party that the blowhard Brex­iters have kept threat­en­ing with­out ever de­liv­er­ing. Or it is pos­si­ble that Mrs May might feel im­pelled to leave of her own vo­li­tion if she is de­feated by a crush­ing mar­gin. It is con­ceiv­able that she could de­clare that she has tried her best, ex­press re­gret that parliament can’t agree, and an­nounce that she is leav­ing the stage to let some­one else see if they can do any bet­ter. But quit­ting in that fash­ion would be out of char­ac­ter. Walk­ing away from messes of their own cre­ation is what ju­ve­nile males like David Cameron and Boris John­son do. What­ever tran­spires on Tues­day, it is not an ab­so­lute given that she will have to quit. Nor is there ev­i­dence that this is what vot­ers will ex­pect of her. The poll­sters are re­port­ing a para­dox­i­cal mood among the pub­lic: the ma­jor­ity don’t like her deal, but only a mi­nor­ity think she ought to re­sign if it goes down in parliament.

Be­yond the rel­a­tively triv­ial ques­tion of what hap­pens to the prime minister, there is a com­pelling ar­gu­ment for get­ting on with this vote in the na­tional in­ter­est. There is a lit­tle over three months left be­fore Bri­tain is sched­uled to leave the EU. If Mrs May’s deal can’t be got through parliament, that needs to be es­tab­lished as rapidly as pos­si­ble so that MPs can start try­ing to nav­i­gate to­wards a non-cat­a­strophic res­o­lu­tion of this night­mare. That could mean at­tempt­ing to find agree­ment on a dif­fer­ent form of Brexit or throw­ing the ques­tion back to the peo­ple with an­other ref­er­en­dum. De­feat for the prime minister’s deal will open up pos­si­ble routes of es­cape from this hideous trap.

We have reached a point in the Brexit de­range­ment where charg­ing into the mouth of hell is per­haps not crazy at all, but the san­est thing that Mrs May can do for her­self and her coun­try.

‘Can­non to the left of them…’ The prime minister is gal­lop­ing into the mouth of hell.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.