JAMES BALL: Desperate Tories are divided, deluded and dooming the country

PUBLISHED: 09:00 29 September 2018

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May arrives to make a statement on the Brexit negotiations following a European Union summit in Salzburg. Picture: JACK TAYLOR/AFP/Getty Images

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May arrives to make a statement on the Brexit negotiations following a European Union summit in Salzburg. Picture: JACK TAYLOR/AFP/Getty Images

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In JAMES BALL’s most recent Deconstructed, he takes aim at a Tory party divided by a doomed obsession with Brexit ahead of their party conference in Birmingham.

The Conservative Party conference does not kick off until this weekend, but we already know it will be a disaster when it comes to Brexit. Faced with the final deadline on producing a deal which achieves the impossible – control over borders, minimal disruption to trade, and no hard border in Northern Ireland – Theresa May’s government has chosen to retreat further into denial, looking to the horizon for some white knight that will never arrive.

This became alarmingly obvious when May gave a public address last Friday – less than 24 hours after being publicly humiliated over the Chequers plan at an EU council summit – and doubled down on the plan she and everyone else surely already knew was dead.

Worse yet, the full cabinet doubled down on the dead-on-arrival Chequers plan at its meeting on Monday, thanks in part to May scheduling discussion of it at the very end of a two-hour meeting, a span of attention apparently beyond the men and women currently in charge of the UK, the world’s sixth biggest economy and a nation of 70 million people.

These alone are cause enough for concern – but the real reasons to fear can be seen in the new attack lines the Conservative party and its ministers are floating ahead of their annual conference. In these soundbites, we can see the depths of the party’s delusions, and the depth of its desperation.

The first line being rehearsed on political programmes by cabinet ministers is a rationale for leaving: look how harshly the EU countries are treating the UK, they say – this shows the EU was never the nice group they were portrayed as. This proves, they say, the EU never had the UK’s best interests at heart.

That this argument survived Conservative spin rooms to make it to air is a sign of just how out-of-touch the party has become, simply because they cannot have tested their own logic. The EU’s job in the exit negotiations is to look after the interests of the 27 countries who will continue to be member states, and to the integrity of the union itself.

By saying that the EU is a tough negotiating partner that is not making concessions to the UK against those interests, the Conservative party is arguing that the EU is far better at representing the interests of its members than UK negotiators are at representing the interests of the UK. Which would, for any sensible listener, surely raise one obvious question: why on earth are we leaving it, then?

The second new Conservative argument is, if anything, even sillier. Theresa May and her ministers have said – in public, on camera – that the 
EU has failed to offer any alternative 
to the Chequers plan that would deliver on the UK’s red lines, and make sure there was no hard border between the UK and Ireland.

This is wrong in so many ways all at once that it’s farcical. The first of which is quite simply that in December the UK government – led by, er, Theresa May – and the EU27 agreed a ‘backstop’ deal that would avoid a border between Northern Ireland and Ireland by keeping the former in most aspects of the single market and customs union, if no other solution was proposed.

The EU then maintained a consistent set of negotiating positions – that the UK could either choose a variant of Norway’s relationship with the EU (which would avoid a hard border), or a variant of Canada’s (which wouldn’t, triggering the backstop).

There is not only the backstop – to which the UK agreed, despite multiple cabinet ministers apparently not
having read the large print, let alone
the small print – but also long-term proposals from the EU that match
May’s criteria.

But there’s a problem beyond that: it’s the UK that decided to leave the EU, not the EU that decided to kick us out. That means the ball’s in our court, and it’s up to us to make it work – especially given that it’s us who will feel the hardest impacts of a no-deal exit, if that’s what happens, as UK-produced impact assessments now confirm.

The new position of the May government appears to be to pretend there’s no public record of everything the EU has consistently said over two years, and then to additionally pretend the onus is on them to save us from ourselves. Neither is true: the Conservative party is in government, and it’s up to them to work out a solution to the absolute mess they have made of the Brexit process – and they have only about six weeks left to do it.

Rather than address that immediate and deep crisis, they’re walking into conference with shallow soundbites that will only appeal to the most fanatic fringes of their Brexit wing – repeating nonsense that will make a deal even harder to sell to their backbenchers and to their base. Labour might have abdicated responsibility for Brexit in their fudge of a conference – but the Conservative party it set to do something much worse. We cannot let them forget it.

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