8 April 2019
Any approach by a prime minister to the leader of the opposition to work out a joint solution to the nation’s most pressing issue is fraught with risks and dangers. It is undoubtedly infuriating to many government supporters, and has only a slim chance of success.
The tempting strategy for an opposition presented with such an initiative is to appear to engage constructively in the talks, draw the government into concessions that further antagonise its own side, and then pull the rug from under it by pronouncing those concessions as inadequate. They would thereby be closer to bringing down the government, their ultimate goal.
The whole manoeuvre is akin to having a dinner date with a crocodile – its main interest is in eating you, not the dinner. It is difficult in any case to see how carrying through the programme of Brexit procedures and laws could be sustained by an agreement between part of the Conservative Party and the bulk of the Labour Party – the Government would be highly likely to collapse under such a strain.
Some good could come of the talks, nevertheless, if they achieve the more modest of the goals set for them: an agreed way of making Parliament come to a decision about what it wants. If the Commons voted this week, by preferential voting or exhaustive ballots, so that one option had to win a majority in the end, they could still settle what form Brexit can take – and leave the EU before the nightmare of European elections.
A Conservative-Labour agreement on how to do that, while still differing on their preferred policies, would truly be in the national interest and welcomed by millions of despairing people on all sides of the argument. If such an understanding emerges from the talks, all well and good. If not, the decision to try to settle Brexit with Corbyn is certainly one of the highest risk experiments known in modern politics.
Yet, rather than denouncing Theresa May and the Cabinet for adopting this strategy, it is important to understand what has driven them to this desperate course. Step forward the most hardline Brexiteers of the European Research Group, who have continued to vote down the negotiated deal. They will set their own historical record – unless a no-deal exit happens by accident this Friday – for the most counterproductive political strategy in our lifetimes.
By preventing the ratification of a deal they didn’t like, they have pushed the entire discussion towards other options they like even less. Unable to pass the deal, the Cabinet then rejected two other options: a general election or trying to leave with no deal.
There would have been a good case for an election called last week, since most Tory MPs had tried to pass the deal and enact Brexit, and almost all other parties had blocked it. But it has to be admitted that an election also carries vast risk, and could produce a Left-wing administration or the end of the whole Brexit idea. It would also be a bizarre campaign in which most MPs of all three main parties wouldn’t want their own leader as prime minister for the next five years.
So what of the no-deal option? This is clearly what many Conservative supporters would like to see. Even if the Cabinet had adopted such a policy, it is highly likely that Parliament would have prevented them from carrying it out. But Theresa May has set her face against a no-deal exit, and her motives for doing so are often misunderstood.
She is attacked as a Remainer who can’t be reformed, or as putting party before country, or more recently as doing the exact opposite of that. Yet for the PM, if I’ve learnt anything from knowing her for more than 20 years, a major consideration is the unity and integrity of the United Kingdom. That Scotland would be more likely to seek independence has been a constant danger of Brexit, and it was always obvious to anyone who cared to think about it that the Irish border would be a serious issue as well.
Leaving the EU with the deal the Prime Minister arrived at would have mitigated those problems. Under its terms, careful, though highly controversial, provision was made for Northern Ireland. As to Scotland, it would have to struggle hard as a separate state to obtain better terms for itself than those agreed for the whole United Kingdom.
In a no-deal scenario, however, the fragmentation of the UK itself would logically become more likely. Scottish nationalists would be able to claim that they could negotiate a better agreement for Scotland with the EU from outside the United Kingdom, and since the UK would not even have an agreement there would be some force in that. For Northern Ireland, a no-deal exit means direct rule from Westminster, a factor specifically cited by Theresa May in one of her recent Downing Street addresses as the reason not to do it.
Such a development would bring intense dissatisfaction, and a campaign by Sinn Fein for a “border poll” referendum on a united Ireland. It seems to me that these considerations weigh heavily with the Prime Minister, and so they should. It is one thing to leave the EU while taking the greatest care to preserve the incentives and settlements that preserve the UK. It would be quite another to acquiesce in an approach that unwittingly upset those settlements, and risked bringing about its future break-up.
A leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party must by definition be a unionist, and their party must never become the refuge of English nationalism. It is one of the growing number of ironies of the Brexit debates that this issue, that separates her from Jeremy Corbyn as least as much as any other, is one reason she has had to go to him in search of a solution.
So as she travels to Paris, Berlin and Brussels to ask for yet another delay, and keeps alive the talks with her mortal enemies in Westminster, give her some credit for a sense of duty to the whole country of which she is Prime Minister. And bear in mind she has been driven to these steps by some people who are also meant to believe in the Union, but have consistently given it less care, thought and priority than she has.
The full article can be accessed here.