10 December 2018

Theresa May’s Brexit zugzwang


By jove, as all the wags have noted today, it is now reasonable to pine for a time when a budget slapping taxes on caravans and pasties was enough to earn an Omnishambles badge. Those were simpler times, my friends. Days of innocence when optimism might not win the day but would at least be spared the ignominy of being laughed out of court.

So here we are, stuck in a zugzwang. That mortifying moment in chess, and some other games, where a move must be made but every available move leaves the player in a worse situation than they were before they were obliged to hop to another square. This is Theresa May’s lot now and it is no good denying it.

The Prime Minister has not helped herself. Her own red lines, notably on freedom of movement, have limited her room for manoeuvre. That die was cast long ago, however, and once again there’s no going back. The problem is there’s no going forward either. Or even sideways.

In the early hours of this morning, Michel Gove was on the wireless dutifully insisting that tomorrow’s promised “meaningful vote” on Brexit would still go ahead. The Prime Minister might be leading her troops into the valley of death but so be it. The light brigade, like the show, must go on even if doing so guarantees disaster. Less than a handful of hours later, the government abandoned its plans making a chum of poor Mr Gove and, rather more importantly, acknowledging the hopeless position in which Mrs May now finds herself.

Because there will have to be a vote, of some kind, at some point. The Prime Minister’s deal cannot be killed-off until that happens. Frankly, this feels like a humiliation delayed, not one that has been averted. The Prime Minister’s doggedness, hitherto the one quality which has earned her some measure of sympathy from people not otherwise inclined to grant her the benefit of much doubt, now begins to seem like something close to delusion. She is the broken Prime Minister at the head of a broken government trying, and failing, to lead a broken party on behalf of a country that, if not yet broken itself, is some way short of full fitness.

But, again, these are all symptoms of the crisis not its cause. The underlying realities have not changed and nor have the problems associated with them. The Prime Minister’s deal might not pass the Commons; nor is it obvious any other deal can do so. And the absence of a deal inevitably means no deal — the default position — looms ever larger even if it is the least popular of all the unpopular options presently available.

Moreover, if May’s failure is now painfully obvious it does not follow any possible replacement could do better. Zugzwang again, you see. Changing the player does not necessarily change the disposition of the pieces. Jeremy Corbyn, for instance, suggests that a Labour government could reopen negotiations and secure a “better” deal. How this would be achieved, and when, remains unexplained. Leo Varadkar, in common with other European leaders — at least some of whom are now thoroughly fed-up with the whole process and who have, in any case, pressing domestic issues of their own to attend to — has made it clear it remains a case of this deal or no deal.

Elsewhere, this morning’s judgement by the European Court of Justice that, actually, the UK government does have the unilateral ability to revoke Article 50 and abandon the entire Brexit process falls into the category of things that are interesting but not immediately impactful. The UK could do this; that does not mean it will. Not, at any rate, for as long as Mrs May and Mr Corbyn are in post.

It will embolden committed Remainers, of course, but time is not on their side. The likelihood of a second referendum must be thought greater than previously but certain difficult questions remain: what should the question be and when — and how — should it be held? Such a vote would be a consequence of extraordinary political failure but also, I fear, be understood by many people as a form of cheating. The efforts made by hardcore Remainers to torpedo the Norway option floated by Nick Boles — an option that is not without its problems but is at least an effort at finding a satisfactory compromise — suggest that these Remainers are now as ideologically committed as the hardcore, no-deal-is-great, Brexiteers.

Even so, it does now seem evident that a change of pilot is required. Theresa May’s authority in the Commons is shot to pieces and it is little healthier as far as the general public is concerned either. That she polls better than Jeremy Corbyn is not the same as polling well.

But if not May, then who? The obvious alternatives are Sajid Javid and Jeremy Hunt. Each is, in Brexit terms, as close to a “cleanskin” as anything available. They are less compromised by their past associations and thereby better placed to hack their way to the kind of compromise that is the only way to achieve the best Brexit available while honouring the demand made by the people — bless ‘em or curse ‘em — in the summer of 2016.

The referendum changed the rules of political engagement, if only on this one issue. It made our representatives delegates and that makes all the difference. It has ensured that many MPs feel they have little choice but to press ahead with a policy they consider sub-optimal but unavoidable. The option of rejecting this and telling the people that, frankly, they blundered remains alive as a matter of theory but the political bravery required for such a move is considerable. Not least since there is no guarantee that it would work. Nor would a second referendum be a cheerful affair.

On the contrary, it would almost certainly make the first one seem an exemplar of best practice and genial discourse. And it would, regardless of the outcome, have consequences that might prove even more distasteful than the crisis to which it is claimed to be the only solution.

So, no, I am afraid I have no greater idea what should happen next than you do or, indeed, your MP does. We can’t go on like this; we can’t escape this either. That is an intolerable situation but so are all the alternatives. Happy Christmas.

Alex Massie is a political commentator.