19 October 2018

May must choose: confront the EU or pick a fight with her party


The Conservative Party is in revolt. More than that, it is disintegrating into rival factions, each of which is convinced the others are leading the party and, perhaps, the country towards disaster. This is a government in name only; one that is barely in office, let alone in power. It is a rabble and a shower and a calamity. And it will not get very much better any time soon.

That much is, I think, clear. It is Theresa May’s sole stroke of good fortune to be opposed by a Labour leader as unconvincing and unpersuasive and suspicious as Jeremy Corbyn. He and he alone is propping up this government even if, characteristically, he is too dim to appreciate this fact himself.

Miseries, once delivered weekly, now arrive on a daily basis. At every turn, another Tory MP wanders off the reservation confirming the suspicion that this is a knackered government charged with delivering something impossible: a Brexit that keeps the Conservative Party together without plunging the economy, and the country, into something approaching chaos.

Even the bright young things are losing the plot; Johnny Mercer, the ex-army officer turned member for Plymouth, admits the party is a “shit-show” of such extravagant proportions that were he not actually, you know, a Conservative MP, he’d have grave difficulty justifying a vote for Conservative candidates if there were an election next week.

With friends like that, the Prime Minister has no need for enemies. Alas, she has no shortage of them either and many, perhaps even most, of the most dangerous ones are within her own party.

The latest suggestion that it might be necessary to extend the proposed post-Brexit transition period by a year is the kind of thing guaranteed to enrage almost everyone. Those voters who want nothing more than an end to the whole ghastly mess will be appalled to discover that Brexit might yet run all the way until 2022; those voters who yearn for a quicker, cleaner, Brexit will worry that extending the transition period is an admission that this really is a “Hotel California” Brexit: you can check out but you can never truly leave.

In one sense, extending the transition period would only be sensible. Most international trade deals take rather longer to negotiate than the 21 months currently proposed for settling and organising future UK-EU trading relations. An extension may very well be needed anyway. Better, as a political matter, to leave that unsaid just now.

Once those discussions begin, the UK will have rather stronger cards to play than it does now. It is baffling that the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg can be heard complaining that, hitherto, the EU has bullied the table. What, precisely, did he think was going to happen? The EU-27 have the advantage of unity, a clear objective, and better cards than those available to the UK. This may be disagreeable but it was also unavoidable. One versus 27 is a tough fight at the best of times and these are very far from being the best of times.

Meanwhile, David Mundell, the secretary of state for Scotland, lets it be known that the Scottish Tories cannot countenance an extension either. The next Holyrood elections are due in 2021 and, with a view to Brexitish fishing constituencies in north-east Scotland, the Tories believe they need to have found a way of leaving the Common Fisheries Policy by then. This, in truth, is not a terribly convincing fear or, indeed, threat given that the SNP’s preferred policy is to one day join the EU without rejoining the CFP. That is not just a dog that will not hunt, it is a fish that will not swim.

Nevertheless, this warning highlights the manner in which the Prime Minister is losing the patience of reluctant, soft, Brexiteers within the Conservative Party just as surely as she long ago lost the patience of the hardcore Brexit brigade. She cannot satisfy anyone at the moment.

That may reflect the fundamentally irreconcilable nature of Brexit. You cannot keep things as much the same as possible (the Treasury preference) and strike out on a bold new path towards whatever “Global Britain” means (the goal preferred by much of the cabinet). One part of the Government wants to focus on known unknowns; the other is enraptured by the giddy possibilities inherent in a new realm of unknown unknowns.

Amidst this, it’s doubtless unsurprising that Tory MPs’ thoughts turn to dropping the pilot. According to the Daily Telegraph’s Christopher Hope, some are pinning their hopes to the idea that David Davis could be installed as an interim leader charged with resetting the Brexit talks – though how this would be achieved remains, alas, unclear – before giving way to a younger leader. Doubtless this could be achieved without a general election but it is not obvious the country would wear one change of prime minister, let alone two changes of administration without being given the opportunity to express its views.

But in these febrile times everything seems possible in part because nothing good seems possible. Mrs May is a dud but no senior Brexiteer has yet outlined an alternative course that could convincingly result in better outcomes. In these circumstances, the prime minister’s natural preference for Conservative unity becomes a weakness, not a strength. It makes it harder – and perhaps impossible – for her to recast Brexit as a national endeavour rather than merely a party one. That was the trick she missed in the summer of 2016 and, in retrospect, that seems like it may have been her first, and greatest, mistake.

We are where we are however, even if that is a place no-one sensible would choose to be. The Prime Minister’s strategy of holding on for as long as possible while divulging as little information as possible must run out of time and space eventually. At some point there must be a reckoning. At some point she must confront either the EU 27 or the revolting elements within her own party. She cannot strike a deal with both. She must choose. You cannot run out the clock forever and the time for playing for time is itself coming to an end. That means there will be more trouble ahead. But that is what happens when the impossible confronts the unachievable.

Alex Massie is a political commentator.