LEADING THE WAY OUT OF THE EU

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Friday 14 December 2018

Here’s a Friday logic test to grapple with. Why would a Tory MP choose not to eject Theresa May from Downing Street now on the premise that she will leave of her own accord by 2022, the year of the next election?

It is imperative the beleaguered Tory Party leader is replaced sooner rather than later. Mrs May no longer commands a parliamentary majority and her wretched arrangement with the Brussels devil is dead. If Britain is to get a deal – a much higher priority for the Remainers than we Leavers – a new leader is needed to represent the national interest. Weighed down by the baggage of her failed negotiation, May will continue to do the exact opposite.

Nevertheless, the “I will go eventually, honest guvnor” promise given by May and her whips in the run-up to Wednesday’s all-important no confidence vote worked, rescuing her from defeat. The other incentives – legal assurances from the EU over the Irish backstop and improved relations with the DUP – are far less credible.

So Theresa the Appeaser stays on. Never mind that more than a hundred of her MPs voted to get rid of her, never mind the rejection of desperate pleas to amend the agreement by European leaders at yesterday’s EU summit, Mrs May is here to stay.

Under a harsher examination, the situation looks worse. In choosing to stay on in office, in spite of the powerful hint – 117 MPs voted to oust May, losing by a margin of 83 – and without a grip on power, we are faced with a vacuum at the top of our political system, one the EU is all too eager to exploit by directing its attention at the malleable moderates populating the Commons.

On Monday, The European Court of Justice rushed through its verdict on whether Article 50 can be revoked. Unsurprisingly, it can. With Parliament in deadlock over the deal, hopes of extending the negotiating period to accommodate a second referendum to cancel out the first have sprung up a notch.

The PM is banking on panic setting in among her MPs by the time her settlement with the EU finally makes its way into the Commons for the meaningful vote after being hastily pushed back from last Tuesday to an as yet unspecified point in the future – the rumoured date is January 14.

No doubt some meaningless changes will be drawn out of the EU, but the number of Conservatives unwilling to commit the nation to a trap we may never be able to escape from looks too large, thankfully.

Independent-minded Labour MPs meanwhile have no incentive to defy their whip and rescue the government. Whether they’re Leavers (see this clip of Kate Hoey) or Remainers taking up the unusual habit of listening to their constituents, a bad deal is a bad deal and they won’t countenance it. Besides, if reports circulating around Westminster are to be believed, Downing Street has done absolutely nothing to bring them and the trade unions on board. Good to see some of May’s incompetence working in our favour for once.

Last month, this newsletter speculated some Labour MPs would rally behind the government once the opportunity for a general election the opposition could win had passed.

Following May’s unconvincing survival act, the two parties are tied in the polls on 38% with Labour a fraction ahead. But many Labour MPs are wary of forming a government with Jeremy Corbyn at the helm and are more preoccupied with staying in the EU, even though the British people loathe it. The means to that end is a second referendum, which up until recently looked a fantasy.

Now Remainers know that a) they can undo Brexit and b) the EU27 will happily consider extending the negotiating period to allow for a second referendum that will, in their eyes at least, give them a mandate to undo Brexit, that nightmare looks frighteningly more plausible.

The Labour high command are still itching to secure a no confidence vote in the government, paving the way for a general election. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Tory Brexiteers have been laudably defiant since feeling to vote may out, but they too should consider the merits of a new government. It would only take a few members of the European Research Group to help secure a majority for the opposition.

Speaking on the steps of Downing Street shortly after it was announced 48 MPs had sent in letters to the 1922 committee to signal displeasure with their leader, precipitating a vote, May, for the first time, threatened an even softer Brexit if her route out of Europe were to be derailed.

One of the new leader’s “first acts would have to be extending or rescinding Article 50, delaying or even stopping Brexit, when people want us to get on with it,” warned May, adding a few moments later, “The only people whose interests would be served are Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.”

Corbyn, McDonnell and about 17.4 million others. Thanks to May’s grovelling promises, a snap general election would see her ousted and most likely replaced with a Brexiteer armed with a patriot’s manifesto. The withdrawal deal as it stands would then be incinerated, and the EU forced to extend the negotiating period for the right reasons. After a fourth national ballot in the space of five years, Remainer hopes of a second referendum would be well and truly dead.

As far as the EU is concerned though, hopes of softening Brexit on a permanent basis, whether via a second referendum or old-fashioned bullying, are very much alive. At yesterday’s summit in Brussels, Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurtz hinted at yet another special gathering in January to “find a provision that is the best possible for both sides.”

“It is absolutely within the gift of the United Kingdom to take No Deal off the table if they wish to,” said Ireland’s Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, pointing to worrying prospect of more concessions on both sides assuring parliamentary approval – the House of Commons has already passed a non-binding amendment to rule out a no deal.

These statements contrast with the abrupt soundbites delivered by Angela Merkel, Donald Tusk, Jean-Claude Juncker and many other leaders at the EU summit, with Juncker saying, “We do not want the UK to think there can be any form of renegotiation whatsoever”, but they would.

Brussels will want to make some tweaks to get this maddening process over with. It has its own problems to deal with. Eurozone business growth has hit a four-year low, the 2017 economic “surge” is over. But to make the upcoming, utterly cosmetic changes on the horizon look more substantive, much like Cameron’s deal in 2016 and May’s original deal presented last month, it needs to look hard fought for and at one time unlikely. That moment is now.

The rhetoric is going to change. Unless we get the leadership we need, the substance will not.