No winners in Theresa May’s dangerous endgame
- Credit: Getty Images
It's almost crunch time and expectations are mounting on what Brexit will look like.
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.
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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.
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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.
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