Sunday 15 September 2019

Martina Devlin: 'No matter what happens in the Brexit debacle from this point, battle-hardened May has drawn a red line that the UK won't crash out with no deal on her watch'

British Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: Reuters
British Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: Reuters
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

Theresa May has no need to wait until the Ides of March before checking for daggers in her ribs because she has a target pinned to her back already. But this woman has more lives than Larry the Downing Street cat.

A significant section of her own party opposes the Brexit deal. But she's still standing. Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg are plotting to oust her. But she's still standing. She has lost members of her Cabinet, with more poised to jump ship. But she's still standing.

Only a hard Brexiteer with "take back control" fantasies or Jeremy Corbyn (because he's hoping to force a general election) could call what's on the table a bad deal.

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It's the best of both worlds for the North, preserving trade with Britain while maintaining access to the EU market, too. It protects the Good Friday Agreement and guarantees no hard Border, which benefits everyone on this island.

Mrs May has been stoical and persistent, not a showy leader but a plucky one. She has demonstrated grace under pressure and operated to the best of her abilities in Britain's national interests. In addition, she has behaved in a neighbourly fashion towards Ireland, whether because she thought it the right thing to do or EU negotiators pressured her. Whatever the reason, she has kept the Border open.

Now the British prime minister has an agreement she believes she can sell to waverers and is ready to put it to the test in Parliament. People feel passionately about it on both sides. But either MPs support her and the deal is passed or they oppose her and it falls. As does she. At which stage general election territory is entered.

And that's when MPs must decide if luck is on their side or not. Currently, they're holding their fingers to the wind trying to assess the views of their electorates.

But the Dirty Harry question is hanging in the ether. "Do I feel lucky? Well, do you, punk?"

A general election risks a Labour victory and Mr Corbyn moving into 10 Downing Street - a possibility that's anathema to Tories. Plus, they may lose their seats.

So, do they bank these gains from Europe? Or take the advice of hard Brexiteers such as David Davis, an early parachutist from cabinet: vote down the offer and return to Europe demanding more?

There are no guarantees of an enhanced deal, of course, but those with a jingoistic world view believe gaining concessions from Europe is like taking candy from a baby.

Mrs May, who has had more experience of negotiating with the EU than anyone, is adamant there was no better bargain to be struck. Inevitably, any version of Brexit has disadvantages for Britain and Ireland, but this could have been worse - the EU has compromised.

Her challenge now is to sell it across the board in Westminster. She said yesterday: "I want to be able to say to all parliamentarians I truly believe this is the best deal for Britain."

But she's lost the DUP. No surprises there. It was never a match made in heaven but she could not uncouple from them sooner because she needed to stay in office long enough to strike a deal.

She cannot rely on her own party to pass this agreement. She must rely on others. Unfortunately, she does not have the support of Mr Corbyn's Labour but her hope must be that some Labour rebels and Scottish National Party MPs will vote her way.

True to form, the DUP has dipped into its medieval language coffers and is frothing about treachery and vassalage to the EU overlords.

The party fears "the integrity of the union" is at risk: the backstop leading eventually to a customs border between the island of Ireland and Britain.

Mrs May insists she has taken on board the DUP's concerns - she says earlier in the year the EU was pushing for a customs border down the Irish Sea but Britain vetoed that. For now, at least, that is the subtext. Consequently, the DUP is suspicious and hostile to her Brexit deal.

How lucky would the DUP be, one wonders, if party members went back on the campaign trail in a region heartily disillusioned by Stormont's two years of inactivity? As for its beloved union, the truth is Northern Ireland barely registers on the British psyche.

Meanwhile, Britain finally may be seated in the European Union departure lounge, a ticket marked March 29, 2019 by its side. The North is also waiting in Departures but possibly taking a different flight - if a new relationship between Britain and the EU isn't concluded by December 2020, when the adjustment period ends, then the backstop applies.

Opponents complain the backstop is never-ending. The reality is the North is being treated differently because of that contested space, its land border with the Republic. Northern farmers, largely, are speaking up in favour of Mrs May's deal because they don't buy into Brexiteer euphoria about free trade agreements begging to be struck with North and South America.

They understand the flipside is opening Britain and the North to products that don't meet EU regulations, such as genetically modified crops and chlorinated chicken, damaging to their home sales. And then there is the matter of EU farming subsidies, only guaranteed by Britain until 2020.

Mr Corbyn is rubbing his hands in glee at the prospect of a general election. If one doesn't materialise, he says - somewhat belatedly, not to mention offhandedly - he'll lobby for another referendum.

But the question of a people's vote would have to be part of any election campaign. Regrettably, the Labour leader is not particularly pro-EU and gives Europe little credit for the checks and balances it offers on Westminster power, although those safeguards have been helpful to Scotland, Wales and the North.

Clearly, someone needs to reinvigorate New Labour and give it broader appeal than Corbyn-style Labour offers. He's not exactly God's gift to a voter who's keen or even undecided and persuadable about the advantages of EU membership.

Then again, Mrs May may survive the inevitable putsch. Right now, she's fighting for her political life - "Tory civil war" threatened is the 'Financial Times' analysis - but only a fool would write her off. She has proved herself to be someone who looks to the big picture and the long term.

On she battles, at least with a plan in her pocket. The alternatives are either no deal or Britain changing its mind about leaving the EU. But at least it won't crash out while she's at the helm.

Irish Independent

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