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The end of May changes nothing

Image: Tiocfaidh ár lá 1916

It is a tribute to Theresa May’s stubbornness that she managed to hang on as long as she did.  Lesser mortals would have run away in shame after recording the biggest defeat in parliamentary history.  Not only did May not do so, but she engineered the third worst defeat in history by serving up the same Brexit deal a second time.  Despite losing the confidence of a large number of her MPs – far more, for example, than Neville Chamberlain had when he was obliged to stand down in 1940 – May hung on in there, determined to microwave her unwanted Brexit deal for a fourth time.  This, however, has proved to be the last straw for a Tory Party that expects to have been (the results won’t be published until Sunday) annihilated in yesterday’s EU election.

The expression “rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic” was coined precisely for situations like this.  In effect, the crisis is already unfolding and displacement activities are futile.  The twin “icebergs” that make the Tory crisis inevitable are, first, the insane decision to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty – thereby handing all of the negotiating cards to the EU – and the folly of the unnecessary general election two years ago.  Both appeared to make sense from a purely Tory point of view.  Triggering Article 50 was a means of placating Tory pro-Brexit hardliners and avoiding a split in the Tory Party.  The ill-fated 2017 general election, on the other hand, was an attempt by May to weaken the hard liners by bringing in an additional 50-100 Tory MPs who would owe their seats and their loyalty to May.

It didn’t work out that way, of course.  May’s disastrous leadership of an election campaign in which Ministers only found out what was in their manifesto when they were on the bus on the way to the launch; turned a Tory majority into a minority, leaving the government relying on the Democratic Unionists for a majority.  While the hard Brexiteer Tories were merely deluded, the DUP were clinically insane – insisting that Northern Ireland leave the EU while, in effect, remaining inside the EU.  It was hardly a surprise that after the 2017 election debacle, EU negotiator Michel Barnier raised the 1998 Good Friday Agreement requirement that there be no “hard border” on the island of Ireland as a means to exploit the irrationality of the DUP position.

With a majority in parliament, May might have imposed a border across the Irish Sea.  But her dependence upon DUP votes necessitated the so-called “backstop” clause in her Withdrawal Agreement with the EU that has proved so objectionable to the majority of her backbench MPs.  In effect, the backstop allows the EU to veto Brexit until or unless some alternative means other than a hard border can be found to protect the Single Market.  And since – other than in the deranged fantasies of the more swivel-eyed Brexiteers – there is no technological fix (not least because smugglers, traffickers and pirates seldom sign up to government computer surveillance schemes) Britain would find itself stuck in a permanent customs union… subject to EU law but no longer in a position to influence it.

Various attempts at changing the wording of the “political declaration” that supposedly explains how the Withdrawal Agreement is intended to operate have cut no ice with MPs because the backstop is enshrined in the agreement itself.  The point that May has inadvertently laboured since the deal was signed is that there is no majority in parliament to support it.  Unfortunately, parliament itself has arrived – through a series of indicative votes – at a conclusion that there is no majority in parliament for any alternative to May’s deal either.

What nobody is prepared to admit at this point is that the only way out of this situation (barring setting up guillotines on Parliament Green) is to hold a general election in order to change the parliamentary arithmetic.  This, however, is not something that Tory MPs will vote for given the collapse in support for the Tories in the polls, the local elections and the EU elections… even Tory turkeys don’t vote for Christmas.  And so, instead, they have taken the only course that doesn’t involve them voting themselves out of government – a change of leader.

Given the tiny size of the Tory membership – some estimates put it as low as 50,000 – and its persistent support for a no-deal Brexit, it is highly unlikely that a unity candidate will emerge to play the role that May (who supported Remain in the referendum) was expected to play when she became leader in 2016.  Instead, one of the pro-hard Brexit candidates will most likely emerge as leader.  And while this might appear to provide a way out of the Brexit quagmire – using the threat of a no-deal Brexit as leverage with the EU – in reality it will make no difference.  The EU already knows that the government cannot deliver no-deal because parliament will act to prevent it; bringing down the government if need be.

The deal struck between May and Barnier really was about the best Brexit compromise anyone could come up with based on the need to honour the result of the 2016 referendum while at least addressing some of the concerns of remain voters.  The inclusion of a permanent rather than a transitional customs union might have garnered more support; although in practice the opposition parties were never going to sign up to a transitional deal without knowing what the end destination was going to be.  May’s replacement will not fare any better; although they will very likely puncture the conceit that the threat of a no-deal Brexit will oblige the EU to renegotiate.

Ironically, the only way in which the next Tory leader would be able to secure anything like the hard-Brexit they will be elected to deliver will be to withdraw May’s Article 50 letter.  Doing so – and effectively taking an actual Brexit off the table while leaving the threat of one as a negotiating lever – is the only means available (within the current parliamentary arithmetic) to bring the EU back to the negotiating table.  This is because it restores the pre-Brexit status quo – an essential component of any negotiation.  That is, prior to triggering Article 50, any failure to reach an agreement would leave the UK as a full member of the EU; whereas after Article 50, any failure to agree would theoretically leave the UK with a worse trading position with the EU than Ukraine enjoys.

The problem is, the new Tory leader will lack the support to reverse Article 50.  Instead, they will obliged to use the threat of no-deal to try (and fail) to bring the EU back to the negotiating table.  Beyond a brief honeymoon period when parliament is in recess, and with the October 31 deadline looming, they will then have to face a parliament that is determined to avoid a no-deal Brexit at all costs.  The Parliament Act might well turn out to be the final Brexit calamity inflicted on Britain by David Cameron – leaving May’s successor unable to do the one thing that would allow the UK to move on… hold an election to change the parliamentary arithmetic; because it requires a two-thirds majority of parliament that is unlikely to be secured given how badly the Tories are faring in the polls.

And so, Remainers will continue to call for a second referendum that there is no parliamentary majority for.  Leavers will continue to push for a no-deal Brexit that is even less popular.  And the government will be stuck with Mrs May’s legacy deal as the only EU position on the table.  In practice, the new Prime Minister will do more or less what Theresa May would have done anyway – run down the clock until the October 31 deadline approaches in the vain hope that something… anything… turns up; before going cap in hand to the EU for yet another Article 50 extension.

As you made it to the end…

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