Wednesday, 30 January 2019

May unites her party, for now

Two weeks ago Theresa May suffered the worst defeat of any government in British parliamentary history. Her Withdrawal Agreement was resoundingly rejected by parliament. Yet last night she brought the draft deal back to parliament and with the help of an amendment, which called for the so called Backstop to be removed, managed to turn her defeat into a victory. The result means that she now has to return to the European Union and request substantive changes to the draft and return to parliament in a further two weeks.

Theresa May also won other victories in parliament last night. The amendments to her motion, from Dominic Grieve and Yvette Cooper, that sought to enable parliament to take control over the executive on this issue were defeated. The amendment that had called for a so called People's Vote wasn't even tabled, as it supporters knew they could not win. And only the ineffective Spelman amendment, which expressed the view that a no deal exit should be avoided, was passed.

In the space of two weeks, without anything changing, May has managed to move from defeat, a resultant no confidence vote and the potential downfall of her government, to being able to command a majority and appearing to be in command of events.

This change of fortune is, however, more apparent than real. The change demanded by the parliamentary vote is unlikely to find much favour in the European Union. Indeed, within minutes of the votes, Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, made it plain that the European Union would not consider changing the draft agreement. This position was echoed by the European Commission and by the capitals of Paris and Dublin. It was also underlined by the Brexit Steering Group of the European Parliament.

So Theresa May has managed to gain another two weeks' breathing space. But this is merely kicking the proverbial can down the road. Yet it is a road that suits her, for the clocking is ticking, and as we move ever closer to the 29th of March, the panic and hysteria of all those who wish to avoid leaving without a deal grows ever more intense, as the passing of the Spelman amendment showed. A cynic might say that May is attempting to use the threat of leaving without a deal (the legal default position) in order to force the European Union to compromise and to force parliament to vote for her deal.

Commentators in the corporate media immediately interpreted the votes in the House of Commons as making leaving the European Union without a deal as less likely. However, the Confederation of British Industry this morning advised its members to step up preparations for a no deal outcome. And this assessment seems much more realistic. It is unlikely that the European Union will provide May with the concessions she needs to get the deal through parliament. It is equally unlikely that May will pivot towards a so called softer Brexit (ie, leaving in name only), as it would destroy her party's ability to govern. The only other alternatives require either an extension to article 50 (which would require the unanimous consent of the other 27 member states) or its revocation: either of which would result in civil war in her party.

Theresa May is confronted by an insoluble puzzle. There simply isn't anything she can do that will be acceptable to both the European Union and to a majority in the House of Commons without destroying her own government. This has been obvious ever since her Chequers proposal, and her strategy ever since has been to delay and run down the clock: a strategy that inevitably leads to the United Kingdom leaving the European Union without having agreed a deal.

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