Irrespective of one’s personal position on the Europhile/Eurosceptic spectrum, it is hard not to admire Mrs May for her determination, stamina, resilience, and sheer grit in the face of a barrage of opposition from multiple sources. She has actually succeeded in clinching a deal with the 27 EU states. If it were to find favour in the Commons’ “meaningful vote”, you might conclude that she had thus firmly established and safeguarded her own Prime Ministerial legacy, and who knows how long she might continue on as PM? But at the moment, the numbers at Westminster are not stacking up in her favour. What happens if she loses the vote? Nobody knows.
I always thought it was a little odd that Mrs May succeeded Mr Cameron after the referendum in 2016. Mr Cameron resigned because he was a Remainer, and therefore not in a position to lead the UK through the Brexit negotiations. He said this specifically, in his short resignation speech from the podium outside No. 10. Mrs May had also been a Remainer, albeit low key, but for whatever reason, she did not feel this precluded her from chucking her hat into the ring. At the time, there was no shortage of Brexiteer contenders – Mr Johnson, Mr Gove, Dr Fox – but who knows what was going on in the cabals of the backbench 1922 committee. Maybe they realised early on that a referendum won on a margin of 52% to 48% of the vote was barely statistically significant, and that some sort of compromise – some people would call it a fudge – would be necessary in order to give expression to what has been called “the will of the people.” If the referendum result came as a surprise, and if the Government, and Parliament as a whole, were broadly on the Remain side, cynics might say that the Government set out to concoct a “Brino” or Brexit in name only. Many on the far right of the Conservative Party might say that this in fact is what Mrs May has striven to achieve.
Aware of the uphill struggle she now faces, Mrs May took to the air waves on Friday to address the people directly in a radio phone-in session. On Sunday morning she also wrote to us all. This might also seem puzzling, since she has taken the decision-making out of the hands of the general public by declaring there will be no second referendum or “people’s vote.” I suppose she might think that the electorate might put pressure on MPs at constituency level to “get on with it” and wrap the whole thing up. It seems unlikely that many members of the public will have trawled their way through the 585 pages of the withdrawal agreement, so maybe she is just relying on sheer voter fatigue to create a climate in which the exhausted public say, “Enough already.” But you take a risk going on talk-back radio, because somebody might bowl you a googly. On Friday, somebody asked Mrs May if the deal she’d brokered was worse than remaining in the EU, and when she spluttered and blustered I thought, she wants to stay in. Why should that be a surprise? She was after all a Remainer. It’s always good to be straight. She might have said, “Yes I’d rather have stayed in. But since we’re out, we’d better make the best of it.”
So what now? Say the deal gets knocked back by Westminster. Mrs May could resign. I think that’s unlikely. Remember determination, stamina, resilience, and sheer grit. She might go back to the EU and try to renegotiate. But Mr Juncker has as good as said, “This is the only show in town. That’s the deal. Take it or leave it.” Some people think he’s bluffing. He doesn’t look like a man who is bluffing.
She might try to extend Article 50. But if there’s only going to be one deal on the table, what’s the point?
She might call another referendum, and broaden the options – In, Out, Shake it all about, Canada-plus, super-Norway… But there would be no guarantee at all of getting an answer clearer than the one that already exists.
And she could call a general election. This seems to me to be the least likely option of all. The Conservative Party may be riven, but one thing it has always put ahead of all other considerations is self-preservation. And Mr Corbyn might win the election.
So what’s left? Only one thing: we crash out.
Cliff edge Brexit has always been regarded as the nightmare scenario, but not by everybody. Some on the right would be happy with the cleanest of clean breaks. Mrs May herself used to say “No deal is better than a bad deal” but I note she has stopped saying that. After all, the prospect of the entire population signing on to the local food bank is beyond frightening. So crashing out, heretofore, has not been an option, but the odds on it are shortening, because, if Parliament can’t make up its mind what to do, we will default to no-deal simply because we run out of time.
Who was it said politics is the art of the possible? You stop an Irishman in the street to ask for directions, and he says, “If I were you, I wouldn’t start from here.” But we have no other choice but to solve the conundrum as it now presents itself. It will be a terrible indictment of our Body Politic if it cannot come to an agreement within itself, and with Europe. We may not much fancy Mrs May’s deal, but at least it’s on the table. As Ken Clarke pointed out on Any Questions at the weekend, most people admire the PM’s tenacity. Ken Clarke was reminded of a conversation he had with Malcolm Rifkind in which he referred to Mrs May as a “bloody difficult woman.” A panel member characterised this as a sexist remark, but Mr Clarke defended himself by saying he knew plenty of bloody difficult men. And besides, he said, it was meant as a compliment. After all, both he and Mr Rifkind had worked for Mrs Thatcher! I have a notion he was digging a hole for himself, but that he didn’t much mind.
Of more serious import was the accusation that Mrs May’s return from Brussels resembled Mr Chamberlain’s return from Munich in 1938, waving his piece of paper. I thought that was a crass remark. But then, it is seldom constructive in contemporary political discourse to invoke, even obliquely, the spectre of the Fuhrer. Still, the reference did remind me of Winston’s critique of the Conservative Government in the 30s, and I wonder if it could be applied now to Parliament as a whole, verbatim:
So they the Government go on in strange paradox, decided to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all powerful to be impotent…