Wednesday 18 September 2019

John Downing: 'Deck is stacked against her - but PM still has cards left to play'


British Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: REUTERS/Toby Melville
British Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: REUTERS/Toby Melville
John Downing

John Downing

With three weeks to go before a vital series of votes in the British parliament, Theresa May has stepped up the tempo of her campaign.

Back-of-the-envelope sums still say she is most likely to lose - but it would be wrong to utterly write off her efforts to deliver ratification of a Brexit deal that brings a good outcome for Ireland.

Yes, without the DUP's 10 MPs, and with the expected defection of many of her own party's radical Brexiteers, it is hard to see how she can get there. It has been a very long political week since we learned last Tuesday that there was a draft EU-UK Brexit deal.

The ensuing days saw Mrs May becoming increasingly embattled, with a series of high-profile resignations including that of her second Brexit minister, Dominic Raab.

This was followed by fevered speculation at Westminster that there would be a heave against her. But events over the weekend and yesterday were kinder to the British prime minister.

Firstly, several key members of her party suggested a leadership challenge was a bad idea - and by teatime yesterday it became clear the 48 MP letters required to trigger such a challenge had not been lodged.

Secondly, the story was that five of her cabinet were determined that Mrs May must "improve" the draft deal and there were reports of "an action campaign" by these.

But we now know that two of the quintet, Liam Fox and Michael Gove, are staying put and at least nominally supporting her for now.

Thirdly, UK business leaders, including those in the North, pumped up the volume in their campaign to have this deal and avoid a no-deal Brexit. The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) president John Allan said such a result would be a "wrecking ball" for the UK's economy.

Fourthly, the EU foreign ministers, including Tánaiste Simon Coveney, yesterday took a further step towards approval of the draft Brexit deal.

All going well, the 27 EU leaders will approve and sign it at a special summit in Brussels next Sunday.

In that scenario, Mrs May will also sign. That formal signing would banish all delusions among some in London that this deal can be improved on, or even a different deal struck at five to midnight.

The hope is that it would concentrate minds with 'this Brexit or a carnage Brexit' as the only two options.

Mrs May is clearly trying to move away from the Westminster bubble, using business leaders to push her case.

"We are not talking about political theory but the reality of people's lives and livelihoods," she told a CBI conference, adding that Europe will remain the UK's biggest trading partner and "free-flowing borders" were crucial.

The move shows that the prime minister still believes she has cards to play. But the deck is still loaded against her.

Irish Independent

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