3 April 2019

Brexiteers have themselves to blame for May’s meeting with Corbyn

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Harry Truman, the 33rd president of the United States, never actually said that “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog” but as is so often the case the legend is more appealing than the facts of the matter. Nevertheless, this is the strategy Theresa May, friendless and all alone, has chosen and Jeremy Corbyn is her dog of choice. Only the Labour leader can rescue the Prime Minister now and the consequences of this are both significant and far-reaching.

The first port of blame for this sorry state of affairs is the Conservative party itself. Twitter is swamped with pearl-clutching Tory MPs horrified to learn that in the absence of Conservative support for Brexit, the Prime Minister must look elsewhere for it. Priti Patel, for instance, complains that “A man who sides with terrorists and socialist dictators, would surrender our nuclear deterrent, has let anti-Semitism run rife in his party and would bankrupt Britain has not been given the keys to Brexit.” Well, what did she expect?

Actions have consequences, even in the House of Commons. Those Tory hardliners holding on to the dream of hard, fast and pure no-deal Brexit appear shocked by the discovery this is an enthusiasm of limited appeal. Three times, now, they have been given the opportunity to vote for Brexit and on each occasion they have denied their own prophet. If they do not wish to be the Prime Minister’s friends, they cannot in all conscience blame her for looking for companionship elsewhere. The Brexiteers had their Brexit and then they gave it away.

That it was neither a pleasing nor an attractive Brexit is not the issue. There are ample reasons for criticising the withdrawal deal Her Majesty’s government has agreed with the European Union; it is, in its way, as unsatisfactory as membership of the EU often was. It is a reminder that you cannot always get everything you want. But just as membership of the EU brought, as far as most Remainers were concerned, more benefits than costs so, from a Brexit perspective, the Withdrawal Agreement has more to be said for it than against it. For it is, whatever they say, a form of Brexit. It “honours” — such a po-faced term, but there you have it — the referendum result.

In any case, everyone knows — even if they spend an inordinate amount of time pretending this is not the case — that the future relationship between the UK and the EU is more important than the detail of the Withdrawal Agreement. That relationship remains a matter for negotiation. And everyone also knows, even though they spend a great deal of time pretending otherwise, that there is little substantive difference between the government’s position and what we think is the Labour party’s position on the Withdrawal Agreement. As far as Labour is concerned, its chief fault is that it is a “Tory Brexit”.

That reflects poorly on a Prime Minister and a Government that lacked the emotional intelligence and imagination to make Brexit a truly national, representative, project. The cost of that blunder is now clear. Having failed to make peace with the hardline Brexiteers in her own party, the Prime Minister has little choice but to look for friends elsewhere. It did not have to be like this and it is not merely hindsight bias to say so.

As always, more than one thing can be true at a time. Of course the Prime Minister’s hand of friendship is a trap. But Labour, like the other opposition parties, cannot have their own brand of cakeism. You cannot spend three years complaining about being shut out of the Brexit process and then complain all over again when you are, however belatedly, invited to play your part. Yes, you might have to own some of this mess; no that doesn’t absolve you of some duty to put the national interest before that of your party. Indeed, you cannot criticise the prime minister for behaving in that fashion and then do likewise yourself. We are, whether you like it or not, all in it together even if MPs have done their best to deny this evident truth.

Throughout this miserable process MPs from all parties have clung to their preferred options at the expense of opening themselves to compromise. Consequently, Parliament has never had an opportunity to make a choice between just two options. That has guaranteed the confusion we witness — and endure — today. Faced with this deal or no deal, most MPs would reluctantly back the deal; faced with this deal of no Brexit most would likewise feel they owed it to their constituents to endorse the Withdrawal Agreement.

This may not be a good place in which to find ourselves; nevertheless it is where we are. There was an obvious way for the Tory party to avoid having to do a deal with Mr Corbyn but the Tory party decided not to take that path. Now there is little option but to hack a way through the jungle in search of it. If this is a crisis or a humiliation, it is one created by the Brexiteers themselves. They had the ball and an open goal and they missed it; no wonder it is time for them to be substituted.

Of course Theresa May must take a hefty portion of the blame too. If you spent two years insisting “no deal is better than a bad deal” you cannot feign surprise when some people, including some people who ought to have known better, take you at your word. There is a simple political lesson there, too: never make a bet you would be unhappy to see called.

But then no-one ever accused the Prime Minister of being an excellent poker player. Her hand has always been weaker than she pretended and her reach across the aisle to Corbyn is merely the final confirmation of something that was always apparent, if only anyone cared to look. That so many of her colleagues preferred blind wishful thinking is their responsibility.

So, naturally, all of this is sub-optimal. It’s Brexit; how could it be otherwise? Even the dogs in the street understand that.

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Alex Massie is a political commentator.