Saturday 19 October 2019

Jody Corcoran: 'Varadkar closes his eyes, crosses his fingers - and hopes for the best'

As Ireland teeters on the brink of a no-deal Brexit, Jody Corcoran asks if it was really necessary to force it to this point

ALL STILL UP IN THE AIR: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar discussing Brexit at the end of the EU summit on Friday last. Photo: Michelle Devane/PA
ALL STILL UP IN THE AIR: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar discussing Brexit at the end of the EU summit on Friday last. Photo: Michelle Devane/PA
Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

Now we know. Theresa May has a Plan B and it is called a no-deal Brexit. She is said to have arrived at Plan B last Wednesday night, shortly before her extraordinary address to her nation during which, in the manner of an autocrat, she set the people against parliament.

It is not just the men in grey suits who will go to her this week. It may be the men in white coats. At this stage, do not rule out an intervention from Queen Elizabeth. These are extraordinary times in the UK and Europe. And Ireland is in the crosshairs, hoping for the best, fearing the worst and passing the blame.

How we got to this point is for historians to unravel. Let us call it a series of unfortunate events, which started when the former UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, called an in-out referendum in the first place. There is little point in going over that now. In advance of what happens this week, Ireland remains on the precipice, about to fall into a deep and damaging ravine.

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What will Leo Varadkar do? He will not back down on the backstop now. So all he can do is close his eyes, cross his fingers and hope for the best. And hope that nobody blames him if it all goes terribly wrong, which it still might well do.

Theresa May has deferred, for now, a third attempt to get her negotiated withdrawal agreement through the House of Commons, fearing that it would not pass and with it she would fall.

Alternatively, it may be that she is biding her time, aware that there is not a majority in the Commons for any other form of Brexit. At this stage I have given up trying to figure out what will happen next, other than to expect that the settlement of sorts arrived at in Brussels last week will hardly be the end of the matter.

Should she eventually get her agreement through, however, neither will that be the end of the matter. May's withdrawal deal is still bad for this country. And that agreement will not be re-opened. A new political declaration might improve matters, of course. But how to get to that point...

The men in grey suits have already called. After her address to the nation, Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the Conservatives' 1922 Committee, told May that many of her MPs want her to resign.

But May is said to be holding out, perhaps delusional or, alternatively, more aware than commentators, or leaders elsewhere, just how difficult it will be to find agreement in the Commons. It may be that her deal will rise again.

After the EU-imposed latest deadline, there is no time for a Conservative Party leadership election anyway. So, in itself, her resignation will solve not a lot in the immediate days and weeks.

Another course may be a motion of no confidence in the UK government.

For such a motion to be passed, an extraordinary alliance between the middle-ground wing of the Conservatives and a riven, Labour Party would be required and there is no certainty that such an alliance will be formed.

Let us assume, or hope that such a no confidence motion is passed. This could be followed by the intervention of the queen. She may be required to ask somebody else, probably in the Conservatives, to form a caretaker government.

It is doubtful the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, will be so asked. For a start, he does not have a sufficient mandate. In any event, it is unlikely he would be able to put together the numbers to form a new government.

The point is, a no deal can still not be ruled out this weekend, notwithstanding a two-week window of opportunity provided by the EU to find a solution which would be supported by a majority in the House of Commons.

And what of Theresa May's state of mind? This is a genuine, not facetious question. Senior officials in Westminster are currently asking that question. They genuinely fear she is prepared to settle for a no deal. What then, Leo?

May's stance on a no-deal Brexit, her arrival at her Plan B, has "caused alarm" at senior levels in government, according to the Financial Times. The Guardian has called her a "rogue prime minister". Theresa May has caved in to pressure from the hard-line Brexiteers, the FT says, "at huge risk to the integrity and economic prosperity of the UK". We can add to that, at huge risk to the economic prosperity of Ireland.

There are other reports that decisions taken by May last week has fuelled concerns in the Treasury about her judgment.

This is what it has come down to: loaded statements as to the well being and judgment of Theresa May, a decent woman but woefully out of her depth, hither and thither, repeatedly questioned, casually referred to as stubborn, weak and to have surrendered her claim to the respect that comes with the office she holds.

Leo Varadkar should take no pleasure in her public fall. His judgment, and that of the EU, is also in question, though not in a psychological manner, of course. But politically, yes - was it really necessary to allow matters get to this point? The EU's leaders will say the course was set by the UK, and that they followed. Perhaps. But it has been a shabby business to say the least, this argument over a backstop that Ireland maintains will not be needed even in the event of a no deal. Go figure.

As he closes his eyes and crosses his fingers, Varadkar must be hoping that events in the UK in the coming weeks will finally provide a clearer picture as to what a majority in the Commons will support, through a series of indicative votes.

But as I say, there is no certainty that a majority will indicate, one way or the other. Do not underestimate how divided the Commons continues to be.

Ultimately, the best outcome for all, the UK included, would be a revocation of Article 50, which would create space within which to start again: a general election in the UK, a new government, a new prime minister and, probably, a second referendum.

To revoke would also create the space for an election here. Varadkar may be inclined to fill that space. But will the minds of voters be informed by how close he has taken the country to economic Armageddon on the back of a huge gamble, or instead by satisfaction at the humiliation of a neighbouring island and a decent, if limited woman? Probably the latter, but do not bank on that either.

Do not bank on anything, in fact. Because right now, Theresa May's on-the-hoof Plan B, a no-deal Brexit, is an outcome which cannot be ruled out. And anybody who tells you otherwise is blindly hoping and praying as much as is Leo Varadkar.

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