Monday 15 July 2019

Alex Kane: 'With nothing set in stone, Brexit sands will continue to shift beneath May's feet'

A House divided: Theresa May has found it impossible to resolve the Brexit impasse in a split House of Commons. Photo: Reuters
A House divided: Theresa May has found it impossible to resolve the Brexit impasse in a split House of Commons. Photo: Reuters

Alex Kane

Just 66 days to go and Mrs May is only now getting around to presenting her Plan B for extricating the United Kingdom from the EU. It isn't even a thought-through, properly tested Plan B; merely an amendable motion to the House of Commons that could, after hours of acrimonious same-old, same-old debate, crash and burn next Tuesday evening, by which time there'll be just 59 days left to concoct and deliver a deal.

The real problem - and it has dogged the process from day one of her premiership - is nothing has been set in stone.

Even the exit date of March 29 isn't, because there are enough MPs across the House who believe the exit timetable can be extended, or postponed altogether.

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And because enough of them believe that, it means they'll continue to "chance their arm" with other options rather than focus on getting the UK out in one piece and with a clear gameplan in place once the clock hand reaches one minute past 11pm on March 29.

Mrs May faces a seemingly impossible task today. I say seemingly only because she clearly believes - although she may now be utterly deluded - she can yet convert her "Brexit means Brexit" mantra into an orderly and coherent departure.

Ideally, she needs something that will attract support from the Labour, SNP and Lib Dem benches - enormously difficult if she refuses to contemplate a very "soft" Brexit, continuing free movement and membership of the customs union.

She has spent the past few days talking to those parties (unofficially in Labour's case, because Jeremy Corbyn refused to take part without a pledge that she would rule out a no-deal option. She couldn't, of course, because that could have meant not leaving on March 29), but there are no whispers of a breakthrough.

Her other problem, of course, is Jacob Rees-Mogg's European Research Group (ERG) and the DUP - totalling around 80-90 MPs - will not run with a soft Brexit.

That said, the DUP could be tempted to support her if it had rock-solid guarantees the backstop would be time-limited to a maximum of two years.

Its linkage to Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson has ensured massive publicity for the DUP, but it is not psychologically, nor ideologically, wedded to a hard Brexit in the way the ERG is; what it really wants is a soft solution for the Border, and a deal that keeps it in step with the entire UK.

Within the next few days Mrs May needs fairly conclusive evidence she can, against all the odds, deliver Brexit in some form; albeit one that avoids a formal split within her party.

All of her instincts are against a no-deal exit. The instincts of an overwhelming Commons majority are against no-deal.

There is talk of a general election at the end of February, but if she hasn't been able to get common ground with her parliamentary party since the last election in June 2017, then I don't see her being able to construct a manifesto around which her party could stand. An early election would almost certainly require postponing Brexit, plus she has no guarantee the Conservatives would win either a convincing, or consensual, majority.

She needs to be careful, too, about the guerrilla tactics being waged against her from all sides of the House.

There are a number in play over the next few days, including a bill to extend Article 50, an amendment for a second referendum, a Labour amendment requiring the government to seek a customs union, and an amendment that expresses parliament's rejection of a no-deal exit.

Remain MPs represent a comfortable majority across all the benches; but what they don't have is a common plan built around a single exit strategy.

Mrs May could, if she was so minded (although she has probably left it far too late), try to bind the Remain majority around a very soft Brexit, hoping they would prefer that to a no-deal departure. There's a fair chance of keeping about two-thirds of her own MPs on board, but a far higher one of splitting the Conservatives down the middle and destroying hundreds of constituency associations.

She fears a referendum for the same reason. I believe her when she says she wants to "implement" the will of the majority at the 2016 referendum.

I don't think she would shed any tears if a second referendum delivered a victory for Remain (although it would have to be a very comfortable majority), yet she would be well aware it would do huge electoral damage to the Tories and maybe (which I think is less likely) provide a significant breakthrough for Ukip.

It is significant, though, that both Nigel Farage and the Leave Means Leave group are already planning for an "inevitable" second referendum.

Can the EU help Mrs May at this stage? It will give her nothing unless it is sure she can get an amended version of the withdrawal agreement through.

Why, for example, would it shift on the Irish backstop (a hugely significant concession) if it thought she was still likely to lose? More importantly, why offer any concessions while a second referendum - and possible Remain victory - is still in play?

As it stands, I would be astonished - something I haven't been for a long, long time - if the UK leaves on March 29.

Ironically, that's when the real political crisis may start.

One thing we have learned over the past 30 months is that parliament has been useless, absolutely useless, in a crisis.

Irish Independent

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