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JANE MERRICK: Confidence is in short supply

TURMOIL: Prime Minister Theresa May makes a statement in Downing Streeet ahead of Wednesday's confidence vote. Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images) - Credit: Getty Images

JANE MERRICK on the wrangling at Westminster and the problem it doesn’t address

May jumping the sinking ship. Illustration: Martin Rowson 2018 – Credit: Archant

Ambushed by reporters as he got into a waiting car on Monday night, the man ultimately responsible for the Brexit crisis, David Cameron, was climbing into the back seat as he was asked whether he regretted holding a referendum on the EU.

Clearly there was something about this question that hit a nerve, because he jumped back out of the car and snapped: ‘No, of course I don’t regret calling a referendum. I made a promise in the election to call a referendum.’

After saying he was ‘very concerned’ about the current situation, the former prime minister got back in and closed the door, leaving the trickier question of whether he would apologise to the British people hanging in the winter air. Cameron’s privilege is that he can ignore the tough questions over Brexit and disappear into the night. His successor, of course, cannot. Less than 24 hours later, Theresa May had her own car-related incident that stood in contrast to Cameron’s. Arriving to meet Angela Merkel for lunchtime talks in Berlin on Tuesday, May found herself locked in the back seat, unable to get out – the German government Mercedes providing too easy a metaphor for her current predicament.

During the referendum campaign, Michael Gove said the UK staying in the EU would be akin to ‘hostages locked in the back of the car’. This week, however, May is trapped in a situation largely due to her own making.

Her decision to pull the meaningful vote on the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement in the Commons, that had been scheduled for Tuesday evening, proved to be the turning point in her prospects of carrying on as prime minister. Until the vote was postponed, May could tell her critics in her own party and on the opposition benches that she was acting in the national interest and in defence of democracy – including respecting parliamentary process. She could have gone ahead with the vote – respecting the 164 MPs who had already spoken in the debate, with many more due to have their say, and then, upon losing, told Brussels she had done all she could to fight for the deal and that the onus was now on them to give some way.

Yet less than a week after her government was held in contempt of parliament in a historic first, she trampled on parliamentary sovereignty by announcing the meaningful vote would be postponed. Yes, the government was facing a certain heavy defeat – with as many as 100 Tory MPs and many more opposition members predicted to vote against the Withdrawal Agreement.

This outcome would have put pressure on May to resign – so pulling the vote altogether simply looked, to some, like an attempt to save her own political skin. For some Conservative MPs who had declined to send letters of no confidence in her leadership last month, this apparently cynical ploy changed their minds about writing to Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the backbench 1922 committee.

There was particular anger that May allowed Michael Gove to go on the Today programme on Monday morning to insist the vote was going ahead, while other ministers had gone into battle for her deal by travelling around the country. A spokesman for No.10 even insisted at 11am that morning that the vote was going ahead. Just half an hour later May was holding a conference call with Cabinet ministers to reveal that it was, in fact, being pulled.

With the number of letters submitted last month rumoured to be just short of 40, it did not take many more to reach the magic threshold of 48 in order to trigger a confidence vote. On Tuesday, May spent breakfast with Dutch premier Mark Rutte before her lunchtime meeting with Merkel and travelling on to Brussels in the evening. On Wednesday, she had been planning to meet Irish premier Leo Varadkar. This whistle-stop tour was to plead for some movement from EU leaders, but it also served as a handy device to keep her away from the febrile atmosphere of Westminster.

After returning from talks in Brussels late on Tuesday, May met with her chief whip and party chairman, fuelling speculation that the number had been reached – in fact, Brady had notified her that evening. What Conservative rebels had to weigh up was whether they believed the prime minister would lose that confidence vote of her own MPs – if not, she would be safe from further challenge. The turmoil in the Conservative Party could heighten the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn in Downing Street, forcing many of the mainstream rump of Tories deciding it was better to stick with what they have. Some Brexiteers had argued that a change of leader would be better after Brexit day on March 29, with the new prime minister able to negotiate for the right sort of trade deal.

Another option was put forward by George Freeman, the moderate Tory MP and May’s former policy adviser, is – if May is ‘out of runway’ – for a caretaker leader and prime minister to oversee the final weeks before Brexit, avoiding a lengthy and potentially damaging leadership contest at the same time as withdrawal. A contest could then take place later in the year.

Separate to the vote of confidence from her own MPs, there was mounting pressure from opposition parties for a confidence vote of the government in the Commons. The SNP, Lib Dems, Greens and Plaid Cymru, as well as the People’s Vote campaign, have joined together to call for such a vote. But, crucially, Corbyn has refused to add Labour’s weight to the plan – because even the most rebellious Tory MPs would be likely to side with their own government, meaning the motion would fail. What’s more, the DUP, who last week joined opposition parties in holding the government in contempt of parliament, have declined to back the proposal. However, the DUP have made it clear that May does not have their unqualified support: its leader in Westminster, Nigel Dodds, was excoriating about the delay to the meaningful vote, questioning why his party should prop up her ‘shambles’ of a government.

Never mind her fight back home, May’s other urgent problem was that EU leaders showed no signs of giving way on the withdrawal agreement. Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president, said there was ‘no room whatsoever’ for renegotiation of the 585-page Withdrawal Agreement – although he did say that ‘further clarifications’ were possible that might provide reassurance to the UK government over the Northern Ireland backstop.

Yet hardline Brexiteers in the Conservative Party will simply dismiss the idea of reassurances from Brussels without a legally binding document. And, while a German official came to May’s rescue by releasing her from the back of her car, Merkel had no such political lifeline for the prime minister, giving her the same message: that there was no room for renegotiation. No matter how many air miles May clocks up this week, she could not change the euroscepticism of many of her MPs.

If Brussels will not move, then the concessions have to be made back in Westminster. The prime minister’s allies have been hunting for something within the 585 pages of the Withdrawal Agreement that might provide confirmation that the Irish backstop will not potentially bind the UK into a customs union with the EU for years to come, as a potential way out of the stalemate.

However, the full legal advice from her attorney general, Geoffrey Cox, showed that the UK could indeed be trapped by the backstop. Brexiteer MPs want it stripped out of the Withdrawal Agreement entirely. Yet Dublin and the rest of the EU would never agree to that for fear of a hard border in Ireland. The issue remains the insurmountable problem at the heart of the current Brexit crisis, regardless of the turbulence in Westminster. And yet politicians in Westminster continue to come up with alternative ‘solutions’, if only because doing something is better than watching a slow motion car crash unfold.

Nicky Morgan, the former Tory cabinet minister, floated the idea of a government of national unity – something that has not been seen in the UK since the Second World War. A joint letter from Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the SNP, Plaid Cymru and Green parties accused the prime minister of being in contempt of parliament for the second time in a week for pulling the meaningful vote, while Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle grabbed the headlines by grabbing the Commons’ ceremonial mace in protest.

May’s tactic of putting off the vote until January 21 at the latest was seen as a way to run down the clock and force MPs to choose between her deal, a no-deal or no Brexit at all. But as any parents of toddlers will know, never threaten to do something you are not willing to carry out. Many Tory MPs believed May will change her mind over her deal – as she had over a snap election last year and in pulling Tuesday’s vote itself – and view it as empty brinkmanship. What’s more, other, more hardline, Brexiteers are happy to go for a no-deal scenario as it will be the purest Brexit there is. Meanwhile, as the shenanigans continue at Westminster, the pound fell to a 20-month low.

One suggestion gaining traction among MPs is the idea of revoking Article 50 in order to delay the date of departure on March 29, and to let the Conservative party turmoil settle. This notion was bolstered by the ruling from the European Court of Justice on Monday that the UK could unilaterally cancel Article 50 without approval from other EU states. For those who want to stop Brexit – including politicians and others campaigning for a People’s Vote – this ruling was hugely significant.

Sir John Major, the former prime minister, gave a powerful speech in Dublin this week calling for Article 50 to be revoked ‘with immediate effect’. He said: ‘The clock, for the moment, must be stopped. It is clear we now need the most precious commodity of all: time. Time for serious and profound reflection by both parliament and people. There will be a way through the present morass, there aways is.’

The prospect of time running out is alarming many in Westminster and Whitehall – as well as in Ireland. With May postponing the meaningful vote until potentially late January, the prospect of a no-deal remains a viable concern. Yet another Cabinet meeting focusing on no-deal contingency planning took place on Wednesday, while in Ireland, which would also be severely impacted by this scenario, the Taoiseach announced that Irish businesses could receive aid from the EU in the event of a no-deal. There were reports that Varadkar wanted May to remove the threat of a no-deal because of the potential damage to the Irish economy, and instead either revoke Article 50 or extend the deadline.

Tory grandees like Lord Lamont, the former chancellor, complained that the Irish border issue had become too dominant over Brexit negotiations – and yet Varadkar’s fears over a no-deal shows how Brexit is not happening in isolation, to the UK alone. Even the protests by the gilets jaunes in France, to which Emmanuel Macron finally responded this week, have played into a sense that Europe is imperfect and with its own problems.

After talks with EU leaders, May insisted that there was a ‘shared determination’ among her counterparts to get around the Irish backstop issue. Yet it remains to be seen that mere words would be enough to win the support of enough MPs in parliament to endorse the deal, even counting out the most hardline of Brexiteers. The prime minister, who seemed to have embarked on a calculated risk of running down the clock to get what she wants found that time had started to run out for herself.

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