Considering many of her recent experiences in the House of Commons have led to humiliation and defeat, Theresa May could be forgiven for congratulating herself on a decent night on Tuesday evening. In reality, she has brought the country closer to a no-deal Brexit, and in the process played to the Brexiteer wing of her party instead of listening to the wider opinion of the House of Commons.
At every turn throughout the Brexit saga the prime minister has given in to the demands of Conservative Eurosceptics instead of putting the interests of the country first. Her high stakes game of forcing MPs to choose between her deal – defeated in the Commons two weeks ago – and no deal is only making the latter more likely.
Yet even at this late stage, it was bizarre that the prime minister blinked in the face of Tory Brexiteers by telling the cabinet she was ready to go back to Brussels to reopen the withdrawal agreement. She also threw the government’s weight behind the Sir Graham Brady amendment, which called for the Northern Ireland backstop to be “replaced”, and was backed by the Commons.
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It was an odd deviation from her all-or-nothing strategy, and allowed her opponents to brand her as inconsistent.
As the SNP MP Joanna Cherry said: “What kind of a prime minister spends months, years, negotiating a deal and then supports someone else’s amendment which drives a coach and horses through it? We are in this mess because of the prime minister’s red lines.”
May went ahead with this shift in policy towards a plan B, despite a phone call with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker at Tuesday lunchtime, during which he told her in no uncertain terms that the withdrawal agreement would not be reopened – despite the demands in the Brady amendment for “alternative arrangements” to the backstop to be found. This will only play into her strategy of appeasing Tory Brexiteers by proving how intransigent the EU has been over Brexit.
Yet this repeated accommodation of Eurosceptics says everything about May’s desire to hold the Conservative Party together, and risk breaking the country apart under a messy no deal.
This is staggeringly reckless coming from a prime minister who has spent her time in Downing Street branding herself as a strong and stable stateswoman acting in the national interest. With the EU implacably opposed to reopening the withdrawal agreement, a no deal is more likely than ever. And, as Sir Oliver Letwin, the former cabinet minister, told the Commons during yesterday’s debate, if the risks of no deal materialise “our party will not be forgiven for years to come… we will not be able to argue that it was someone else’s fault”.
For the EU’s part, they are right to want to protect the withdrawal agreement in its current form, because the backstop – which was agreed by the UK cabinet as well as EU leaders – not only prevents a hard border in Northern Ireland but protects the interests of an ongoing member, Ireland. The EU does not want a no-deal Brexit but it also cannot be seen to be dancing to the tune of Tory Brexiteers.
Of course, May had to come up with a real plan B to show her MPs after her first attempt – unveiled a week ago and which changed nothing of substance in the withdrawal agreement – was quickly exposed as nearly identical to her plan A.
In weighing in behind the Brady amendment, the prime minister has, once again, shown where her loyalty lies. There was some compensation for MPs who voted by a majority for Caroline Spelman’s amendment against a no deal, when May said she would hold talks with all those MPs who want to block this scenario. But, in reality, the Spelman amendment has no legal force and May can still ignore their pleas.
The prime minister could have played this very differently in the wake of her victory in December against a Brexiteer plot to unseat her as leader. She could have turned away from the Tory right and found a consensus across parliament for a tweaked deal – one that could be entertained by the EU. Instead, she has defended the narrow interests of the Conservative Party and pushed the UK to the brink of a risky, economically damaging no-deal Brexit.
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