Monday 17 June 2019

Martina Devlin: 'The backstop isn't going away because there is a new occupant in Number 10 - anyone hoping for a different deal must believe in flying pigs and unicorns'

Boris Johnson. Photo: OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images
Boris Johnson. Photo: OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

So that fire-starter Boris Johnson takes a pace closer to the premiership, a role he regards as his destiny, and Britain lurches in lockstep a little nearer to a no-deal Brexit. With him in command, Ireland must be braced for a scorched earth policy.

Theresa May's tenure, heavy on agony and light on ecstasy, ended yesterday. Until the last, she remained loath to go. Once power is tasted, some people find the worst day holding it preferable to the best day without it.

Leadership had to be crowbarred away. She tried everything just short of sandbagging the windows to remain in 10 Downing Street, but Waterloo for Tories in the European election was the last straw. Yesterday, her bunker yielded up the lamest of hobbling ducks.

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Now, Mrs May is a political janitor until Conservative Party members elect a successor - in the interim, expect everything from horseplay to high horses and no hurry on any Brexit progress.

While up to a dozen contenders are interested in entering the race, from Dominic Raab to Andrea Leadsom to Michael Gove, Mr Johnson is under starter's orders as favourite. He is no foregone conclusion, however - he may implode during the hustings should his showman tendencies get the better of him.

If he does snatch up the poisoned chalice, Jacob Rees-Mogg will score a bulls-eye Cabinet post and the Tories will tilt further to the right, not least because Nigel Farage's Brexit Party is likely to emerge as one of the EU election winners. Already, Mrs May's incumbency is looking less dreadful.

Her departure will not act like magical sealing wax on a divided parliament and fractured country. Summer may be on the horizon but Britain remains knee-deep in its winter of discontent. Inevitably, the new prime minister will promise to heal and unify but redeeming that pledge is another matter entirely.

The backstop isn't going anywhere simply because a new occupant moves into Number 10. Mrs May's replacement will talk big about returning to Europe to renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement, but anyone who accepts the probability of a substantially different deal must also believe in flying pigs and unicorns.

Regardless of who heads the current administration, the DUP is still needed to prop it up and that party's raison d'etre remains to protect the union. The backstop is anathema to it and hinders a bargain being struck. But government policy, as dictated by the House of Commons, rejects a no-deal Brexit so her successor must grapple with the same dilemma she did - how to deliver an orderly Brexit. No deal or no Brexit remain more realistic than the prospect of a shiny new Withdrawal Agreement.

With no more tricks up her sleeve, Mrs May made her resignation statement yesterday, saying her successor would have to build accord in parliament to deliver Brexit.

"Such a consensus can only be reached if those on all sides of the debate are willing to compromise," she warned.

Easier said than done. It was beyond her powers of persuasion. Parliament refused everything she offered, including her resignation in return for passing the deal.

She could have stepped down with dignity after her Withdrawal Agreement was rejected three times by the House of Commons. But there is no dignity in attempting to bring it forward for a fourth time, floundering, and being told by the 1922 Committee that either she leaves or the rules will be changed to push her aside. Fundamentally, she was court-martialed and drummed out.

Only the most heartless observer could fail to feel some sympathy for this dogged woman. Nevertheless, her sluggishness in seeking cross-party co-operation, essential though she knew it to be, betrayed her as a politician without vision.

A power struggle between hard Brexiteers and moderates in the Tory party is now imminent. Whoever inherits from Mrs May will be obliged to claim they are tougher than tough, stauncher than staunch, truer than blue. No one will triumph by describing themselves as middle-of-the-road. After all, moderates lost ground to Mr Farage in the European election.

Mind you, the Brexit Party's performance during this unlooked-for election ought not to be read as much more than a-plague-on-both-your-houses vote, a criticism of Westminster's stalemate. It doesn't necessarily mean Mr Farage's poisonous brand of far-right populism would translate into a raft of seats in the Mother of Parliaments.

He has failed repeatedly to win through to the Commons as an MP and, furthermore, the Brexit Party is a single issue group - minus its figurehead, it would dwindle into nothingness.

What he has done, however, is galvanise the Tories into tackling Mrs May. Now that she has been prised out, they are looking for a leader who can win back votes lost to the Brexit Party.

Mr Johnson's credentials suggest him as the person for that job. He is a popular figure - winning two terms as Mayor of London - and MPs may feel having him as leader increases their chances of seat retention. Popularity has a habit of dwindling when things don't proceed in line with expectations, however.

Mrs May had a fairly high approval rating when elected to the premiership unopposed in 2016. Now, she is hugely disliked, labelled a Maybot because of her apparent lack of interpersonal skills, accused of surrendering to EU bully-boys and subjected to crashing snobbery in Tory circles about her family background. People mention how both her grandmothers were reportedly in domestic service, shock horror.

This reveals all we need to know about the class-ridden Conservative and Unionist Party although it won't surprise their leader. She once told a party conference they were known as "the Nasty Party".

Clearly, it was deluded for her to stay in office for as long as she did. There is no grace in such a forced departure. On the plus side, her memoir should provide fascinating insights into a pivotal period in British politics and Irish-British relations. Britain's state papers in 30 years' time should also be enlightening but that's a long time to wait.

Any regrets for Mrs May? She mentioned one, although she ought to be up to her neck in them: her "deep regret" at being unable to deliver Brexit.

June 6 is to be her last day as leader, 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings - the historic invasion of German-occupied France by the Allies, which turned World War II's tide.

But nothing can turn the tide on a mediocre leadership when brilliance, deviancy and passion are required.

What she did manage to do was hold together her party - no schism on her watch.

For what it's worth, that's her legacy. Good for the Tories, less good for Britain. And none of it good for Ireland.

Irish Independent

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