Brexit: Theresa May has lost control, but is still grinding on

2:26 pm on 13 March 2019

By David Townsend*

Opinion - The Brexit votes in the UK's House of Commons this week have not just been defeats for Theresa May's threadbare government and herself personally, but clear signs she has lost control of events.

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May.

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: AFP

Prime Ministers in that sort of position generally consider resignation.

Especially when they have made a policy as big as Brexit a personal mission.

But if you start a project without a plan and hope, Micawber style, that something will turn up, you won't get what you deserve but what's coming to you.

Battered and humiliated, Mrs May intends to soldier on.

Promoting her Brexit "deal" for the second time in in two months (after its overwhelming rejection by 230 votes in January) on Tuesday evening UK time, it was again defeated, by 149 votes. A bit like some aspects of WWI generalship: heavy casualties and few yards gained.

The Prime Minister spent a frantic two days before the vote trying to get some words from the EU that would persuade a majority in Parliament that she had achieved a breakthrough on the Irish border question.

Avoiding a hard border is the problem. Ireland remains in the EU and Northern Ireland is part of a departing Britain. Trade across the border is vital to both sides.

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May speaking at the start of the debate on the second meaningful vote on the government's Brexit deal.

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May speaking at the start of the debate on the second meaningful vote on the government's Brexit deal. Photo: AFP or licensors

The (now defeated) Brexit "deal" says that until future trade arrangements can be agreed, a "back stop" within the customs union for Northern Ireland remains in place. Under that agreement Britain would not be free to sign up to trade deals outside the EU.

A press statement was issued by 10 Downing Street saying that a "legally binding" agreement that eased Britain's position about being in the customs union had been agreed. The right wing press in the UK swallowed it. Triumph, Victory etc were the headline words from the usual suspects amongst the tabloids.

The claim was promptly shot down by the government's own Attorney-General Geoffrey Cox, the top government lawyer. He had been in the EU negotiations with Mrs May and said it was not legally binding.

The result was inevitable. The Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party (the government's support party) voted against and was joined by dozens of Conservative dissidents and Euro sceptic MPs. The Labour Party (in the main) and the smaller opposition parties joined them. Mrs May lost the vote. She also lost her voice.

As a result and having no control of her own party in Parliament, Mrs May was obliged to concede that the vote tomorrow on whether to spike the 'no-deal' option will be a 'free vote'. She will not whip her party to vote one way or the other.

The reason? Some members of her Cabinet would probably resign if she insisted for or against. The vote is expected to make it clear that 'no deal' is off the table.

A video grab from footage broadcast by the UK Parliament's Parliamentary Recording Unit (PRU) shows MP's waiting for the result of the second meaningful vote on the government's Brexit deal, in the House of Commons in London on March 12, 2019.

MPs waiting for the result of the vote. Photo: AFP PHOTO / PRU

And so to Friday's vote, this time on the question of telling the Prime Minister to go back to the EU to ask for more time. The UK is currently destined to leave the EU on 29 March.

But this is the not in the control of the Prime Minister. The EU will want to know what purpose an extension would serve. Given two years have resulted in chaos in London what will two months or three more achieve?

And the EU is this year facing difficult elections to its own Euro Parliament in 27 countries. The EU is set to choose new Commissioners - different from those who have been involved with Brexit.

All that will take up to a year. The UK could be on the back burner for longer than Mrs May has previously said is tolerable. But the mission goes on.

*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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