Sunday 25 August 2019

Sean O'Grady: 'Does May really think Corbyn will deliver a Tory Brexit? Her only hope is a second vote'

Square one: British Prime Minister Theresa May is seen outside Downing Street in London. Photo: Reuters
Square one: British Prime Minister Theresa May is seen outside Downing Street in London. Photo: Reuters

Sean O'Grady

Yet again she got the lectern out. Yet again she let us down. No general election. No second referendum. No immediate resignation. She said - relatively - little of real consequence, turned on her heel and didn't take questions. She's going for yet another meaningful vote. What a bore.

Another anticlimax then, from the queen of the let down, Theresa May. She really is debasing the currency of the set-piece Downing Street statement. It used to be reserved for declarations of war or general elections or tearful prime ministerial resignations. Next time she'll probably make a solemn promise to get the next round in.

In truth it appears to be an exercise in the blame game - tying to pin the failure of Brexit on Jeremy Corbyn this time. The rhetoric about national unity is incredible from someone who has so studiously ignored and disdained parliament for the past few years.

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And it is a flimsy, transparent effort to get Jeremy Corbyn to back what he has always called a "Tory Brexit".

If that is the best that May and her cabinet colleagues can come up with after seven hours of discussion then we really are running out of room.

She is, in other words, sticking to Plan A - her deal - and pursuing it this time in the pathetic belief, sincere or not, that she can somehow get Corbyn to buy into it.

She must think him very stupid indeed.

So, by the end of the week we will be back again at square one, another run round the circuit completed. So weak is her position - presumably from the proceedings of her marathon cabinet session - that she is too feeble even to make the ritual threats about elections and no-deal Brexit (indeed she ruled that one out - thanks, presumably, to a strong showing from the likes of Philip Hammond and Amber Rudd).

The substance in the May statement, implied only, is that she will shove a reference to the customs union in the political declaration, expecting this to be sufficient to persuade Corbyn to whip his MPs to back her deal. Yet the political declaration has no force.

Then again, if she consented to negotiate with the EU to put a customs union into the Withdrawal Agreement, or otherwise into a legally binding document, then it might just have a chance.

That, though, would rub out her red line: and be the functional end for Liam Fox's Department for International Trade's role in pursuing global trade deals. There would be a massive rebellion in her own ranks, and surely resignations. She has come to realise, probably too late, that she can only get her deal through the Commons with opposition - ie Labour - votes.

Yet Labour has sniffed an election in the air, a chance to smash a chaotic, unstable, volatile and divided Tory party, and achieve Brexit on its own terms.

This effort will flop, entirely predictably, and the initiative will pass to the EU. Britain will ask for an Article 50 extension, as May states. The EU will grant it, only on the condition that the UK participates in the elections to the European parliament; and then either a general election or a second referendum. Otherwise we crash out.

If I were a Tory MP, I would fear my party being annihilated in the election campaign, 1997-style, topped by the arrival of a deeply socialist Corbyn government - wealth tax, nationalisation, the works.

Nor would I relish crashing out of the EU with Theresa May in 10 days' time - even if the Commons allowed it and even if the EU insisted. The only - only - option left is the Final Say referendum. Tack that to May's deal and it would pass both houses of parliament and get royal assent in a morning.

They know what to do. They should get on with it.

Who knows, May might even win this time round.

© Independent News Service

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