Tuesday 19 March 2019

Kevin Doyle: 'Brexit shambles: the sequel' has a rollicking script - but no clear ending in sight

 

Opposition: An anti-Brexit protester in the rain ahead of the meaningful vote in parliament yesterday which saw the UK prime minister’s deal defeated. Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Opposition: An anti-Brexit protester in the rain ahead of the meaningful vote in parliament yesterday which saw the UK prime minister’s deal defeated. Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

We have now entered: 'Brexit Shambles: The Sequel'.

There has never been a political drama quite like it. Cliff-hanger after cliff-hanger consumes the news agenda while we are repeatedly promised that clarity is in sight. Then a fresh twist emerges to turn the whole thing on its head.

The only problem now is that the authors of Britain's 'great Brexit future' haven't actually figured out an ending.

That shouldn't come as a surprise given the almost fictional line-up of characters put in this unbelievable scenario.

There's a weak prime minister who believed she would be all powerful after calling a snap election. Instead she found herself bowing at the altar of the DUP, which quickly became a godsend to Jacob Rees Mogg's European Research Group (ERG).

And all the while the total dysfunction at the heart of the UK government is allowed to survive because the only thing more unpredictable is the alternative: Labour's Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister.

Clearing her throat: UK Prime Minister Theresa May at the start of the debate on the second meaningful vote on her government’s Brexit deal in the House of Commons yesterday. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Clearing her throat: UK Prime Minister Theresa May at the start of the debate on the second meaningful vote on her government’s Brexit deal in the House of Commons yesterday. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

The United Kingdom woke up punch-drunk in the centre of a crossroads yesterday, blinded by the lights blaring from all directions.

The road leading to a deal appears closed. The no-deal route is getting closer.

Another option is the great unknown: a second referendum or even a general election.

And then there is the long road built on an extension to Article 50, which currently seems the most appealing, simply because it means the cliff is further away.

It was hard not to feel some sympathy for Theresa May, but it's also impossible to ignore that she took the keys of the Brexit bus from Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage a long time ago.

All the frantic scuttling around London and Strasbourg is clearly taking its toll. She could only get out the first two words of her afternoon speech out, saying "Mr Speaker" before coughing and clearing her throat.

As Labour MPs heckled her about not being able to make her speech, the PM quipped: "OK, you may say that, but you should hear Jean-Claude Juncker's voice as a result of our conversation."

The irony is that Mrs May, watched from the guests gallery by her husband Philip, was wasting her already depleted breath arguing for a deal that was never going to pass.

The seeds of her defeat were sown in Brussels long ago, but they began to flower in Dublin yesterday morning.

Leo Varadkar was up early and speaking fluently out of both sides of his mouth.

I don't mean that as an insult, but he was clearly trying to address one audience in Dublin and another in London.

He made a good attempt at it with a statement that lacked any tone. It was neither triumphalist nor defeatist.

Here's what he wanted to reverberate in Westminster: "The further texts agreed yesterday provide the additional clarity, reassurance and guarantees sought by some to eliminate doubt or fears, however unreal, that the goal of some was to trap the UK indefinitely in the backstop. It is not."

However, within minutes it was clear that they heard the message intended for the domestic audience which amounted to a categorical statement that the new measures given to Mrs May did not reopen the Withdrawal Agreement, "or undermine the backstop of its application".

He quickly headed for the airport, safe in the knowledge that he could avoid any further comment simply by being 35,000ft above the Atlantic.

But his comments came at the start of a constant flow of bad news for Mrs May.

Her Attorney General Geoffrey Cox came next with his revised legal advice. He made it clear that the potential still remained for the UK to be trapped in a customs union in order to avoid a hard Border on this island.

Despite this he later spoke in Parliament to urge MPs to vote in favour of the deal in order to allow the "entire continent of Europe" to move on.

After so much weight being put in his legal opinion, he suggested it was actually a "political decision" that was needed.

Perhaps if he had made his declarations in reverse it might have changed the narrative - but again the damage was done.

By the time he was appearing in public, the DUP had made up its mind based on his written advice.

The party's militant members concluded that "sufficient progress has not been achieved at this time".

And with that Mrs May went on to lose by 149 votes. Down from the 230 majority against her deal first time around but still not enough for her to regain any credibility, either in London or Brussels.

"This is an issue of grave importance for the future of our country," she croaked.

But the show was already moving on. EU chiefs were quickly tweeting that they have done "all that is possible" to secure a deal.

Donald Tusk and Michel Barnier were politely telling Mrs May not to come knocking on their doors again.

And so Britain is staggering back to the crossroads again this morning, except this time the road to a deal has collapsed under the weight of the backstop.

This evening, MPs will decide whether to block off the no-deal option. Everybody in Ireland should be watching this vote through their fingers as the wrong result will bring indescribable hardship to this island.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin told the Dáil yesterday that it would "essentially wipe out" our beef industry.

Thankfully the more likely outcome is that the show rolls into tomorrow when the UK may vote to seek a Brexit delay.

The EU is becoming increasing wary of this idea. "What is the point?" said one source.

However, the Irish Government will help Mrs May kick that can as far down the road as she can.

Sure, voting for an extension won't actually resolve the issues. It will only prove that the UK has wasted two years going nowhere.

More than ever before, MPs now face what the prime minister has described as "unenviable choices".

They simply cannot reconcile the irreconcilable objectives of leaving the single market and customs union while simultaneously keeping the Border on this island open and frictionless.

All we can do is watch on from the sidelines now in the hope sense will prevail.

Irish Independent

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