12 Dec 2018

Brexit: Theresa May racing against time for deal

9:03 am on 12 December 2018

By David Townsend*

UK Prime Minister Theresa May has only herself to blame for the political shambles Britain finds itself in.

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May.

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: AFP

She has blundered strategically and consistently in what was always going to be the Sisyphean task of leaving the European Union.

Only the fantasists and charlatans in her Cabinet said it would be easy. For a while she went along with them.

"Brexit means Brexit" was her meaningless mantra for months.

It might be said that Mrs May conspicuously lacks imagination-political "nous". Her lack of understanding of the role of Parliament vis-à-vis the disorganised government she leads is just the latest example.

Yesterday and dramatically, Parliament was denied the promised and hard won "meaningful" vote on the terms of Mrs May's "deal" to leave the European Union.

It took 164 MPs and ministers participating in the debate on the terms before it dawned on the prime minister that she would lose. Heavily. Better to take the wickets home. Wait for more favourable political weather. The government will not collapse: that arguably happened months ago.

As they say in Parliament, this is a crisis, but it's not serious. If Britain actually leaves the EU without any deal it most certainly is.

And at all costs the possibility of a General Election has to be avoided. From the start with David Cameron, now in political hiding, the aim of the EU referendum was to keep the Tory Party united. Well that hasn't worked big time.

Mrs May, Mr Cameron's successor did not win the 2017 election she called. So, play for time and ask the Europeans to be more generous.

Maybe make some concessions. Hope something, Micawber-like, turns up. Time is currently not on her side.

What possible "renegotiation" or concessions, no-one in government or opposition is able to define.

In fact, the European Court of Justice - one of the chief causes of the Leavers' complaints and desire to exit the EU - has done Mrs May a favour.

They have said that the Article 50 declaration of Britain's intention to leave may be torn up by Britain without EU involvement. It would mean that the fast approaching exit deadline of 29 March 2019 might not apply. More time to reconside options.

But that would see the prime minister and her government (and the Opposition?) accused of reneging on the (non-binding) referendum result to leave the EU. Would Mrs May do that? Hard to say.

She did say there would not be an election in 2017 and then called one, losing her existing, inherited majority in the process. There was to be the Parliamentary vote on her deal and then she cancelled it. So this lady is for turning.

But while she is prepared to soldier on, some of those defeated in the last leadership contest may not let her.

Boris Johnson has had a restyled hair do: the thinking underneath remains as juvenile. Michael Gove, undoubtedly the advocate of going back to Brussels to re-negotiate, will create an option for himself.

The "deal" she promoted for the departure from Europe was dead from the moment she announced it.

Quite simply Britain wasn't "leaving" under that deal. It was harnessed to the EU chariot through the Customs Union (preventing Free Trade Deals with anyone else). Through Northern Ireland with the EU land border it remains in effect in the Single Market. A voteless, fee paying passenger.

Mrs May's hitching herself to the reactionary DUP Party in Northern Ireland for party advantage, was the icing on the cake.

A terrible beauty was born.

So where to now? A vote at some undefined date in the New Year with minutes to go before Britain bails out, in the hope that fear will grip enough MPs to back any deal in a storm: a united effort by Opposition and some Tories to force a General Election: binning Article 50 and back to the drawing board: even another referendum?

This time the question psychologists say should be "Leave or Stay," not "Remain".

Stay is more positive and the English are dog lovers. They don't say "remain" to their dogs.

* David Townsend is an ex-UK Parliamentary Labour candidate, a former Labour ministerial speech writer and special adviser and contributor to The Guardian, The Independent and The Times.

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