Wednesday 19 June 2019

Martina Devlin: 'Magical thinking abounds on Brexit - but if May is crushed along with her deal, her rivals will be left with an escape act beyond the powers of Houdini'

'It’s impossible to believe a highly focused individual such as Mrs May is without a backup idea.' Photo: Reuters
'It’s impossible to believe a highly focused individual such as Mrs May is without a backup idea.' Photo: Reuters
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

Welcome to the world of magical thinking. Otherwise known as the only common ground on both sides of the stay-or-go Brexit gulf. And what a chasm it is.

Magical thinking means people being highly invested in believing their preferred outcome will happen - in direct contradiction to the evidence. So, on the one hand are Borisites who claim the Withdrawal Agreement should be rejected and it's simply a case of going back to Europe to demand a better deal. That's magical thinking with bells on.

On the other hand are Remainers with their fingers crossed others will see sense and the process can be reversed - that Brexit doesn't mean Brexit after all. And in a space she occupies almost alone is Theresa May, pitching a deal not even Houdini with his bag of tricks could pull off.

One way or another, a showdown is looming on Tuesday when Mrs May's departure plan is certain to be defeated because the parliamentary arithmetic is "challenging". So, what follows? Take your pick from a range of potentially chaotic possibilities: she topples, her government falls, or both. The only unambiguous fact here is that Britain is divided along deeply scored fault lines.

It all began with David Cameron, whose magical thinking allowed him to believe Britain would vote to stay in the EU even if he ran a substandard referendum campaign. Instead of silencing anti-EU voices in his party he handed a megaphone to them. Oh to be a fly on the wall in the Cameron household today.

Mrs May has wandered into the magical thinking zone, too, hoping against hope her Withdrawal Agreement will squeak through Parliament. The deal is unpopular on all sides of the debate but she continues to plough ahead, citing the national interest as she attempts to harvest support.

The Labour backing she needs isn't forthcoming, however - that party scents a snap general election. As for the Tories, they are shearing off in various directions.

Is Mrs May's political career in the balance? That depends. Usually, a leader would step down if a deal of this magnitude was rebuffed. But these are not normal times. Power-hungry people are circling her, the kind who'd feed their firstborn child to a python in return for the keys to 10 Downing Street. Her vulnerability after the vote will be their opportunity. However, the Tories are divided and any challenger may not drum up sufficient support.

Mrs May is a dogged fighter and her whips are busy-busy this weekend on her behalf, but it's difficult to see how her government can be on anything except borrowed time. Her problem is an inability to build cross-party support.

The confidence and supply pact with the DUP has turned to dust: its members voted against her this week when the government was held in contempt of Parliament. And the DUP 9 (because number 10 shirt Ian Paisley Junior is out of action temporarily) will vote against her again on Tuesday.

Magical thinkers in the DUP? To the nth degree. They are convinced their actions will strengthen the union - in fact, Brexit threatens it. They have added bricks and mortar to the case for a united Ireland.

"The harder the Brexit, the louder we'll cheer" is the DUP's position. Its core base might warm to such macho talk, but the middle ground is aghast at this anti-business posturing. A group of Northern business leaders, farmers and civic society representatives travelled to Westminster on Thursday to reiterate their support for the Withdrawal Agreement. But if they persuade the DUP to change direction then I'm a unicorn.

Nor will the Scottish National Party back Mrs May because her deal leaves Scotland at a competitive disadvantage compared with Northern Ireland. The least it wants is the same relationship with the single market and customs union.

Meanwhile, all anyone can do now in Ireland is watch. After being party to negotiations between Britain and Europe for more than two years, the Irish government is no longer in a position to influence events.

Come what may, there is a strong probability of tumult and the prime minister will be jostled at best. The probability is she will be crushed by it. Already, she's bruised by that rebuke from an increasingly assertive House of Commons, when her government was held in contempt of Parliament for only publishing an outline of the attorney general's advice to cabinet on the departure deal. That was remedied in jig time and the guidance made public in full. But the damage was done.

It's the first time a British government has been found in contempt by Parliament and underscores her administration's fragility. It emphasises how Mrs May's government is no longer in charge - control is passing over to Parliament's hands.

The purpose of government is strategy: it sets the direction and charts a country's course forward. But Parliament is now saying it can't or won't trust the government to do it.

In a second rebuke, further evidence of an assertive Parliament flexing its muscles, MPs voted for more control over the next steps to be taken if her deal falls, in line with expectations.

Clearly, nobody is satisfied by the Withdrawal Agreement. With the Good Friday Agreement, there was a sense of progress and mutual advantages.

One negotiator involved in both deals told me he experienced elation after the Good Friday treaty but felt flat after this deal because nobody benefits. It gives neither Brexiteers nor Remainers what they want and Ireland will suffer, one way or another. Yet it is an improvement on no deal because something closer to certainty is offered.

It's impossible to believe a highly focused individual such as Mrs May is without a backup idea. She just won't admit it. A Plan B is for others to advance, she told BBC Radio 4 this week. Her position is: "The options are there: there's a deal, no deal or no Brexit."

No mention of a new deal. But if she retains the premiership, even after Commons defeat, her government will have no choice but to advance a new plan apparently within a 21-day timeframe. Goodbye Christmas.

Labour is banking on a general election. As for the DUP, it can't fancy facing its unhappy middle ground on the doorsteps. It might prop up Mrs May for a time, huff and puff though it will, unless it knows there's a viable candidate within the Tories to replace her. Does Boris Johnson have the numbers or is he all abracadabra and no substance?

Finally, the EU's highest court has said Britain can unilaterally cancel Brexit. But the notion of Brexit vanishing in a puff of smoke also counts as magical thinking. And so, we wait.

Irish Independent

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