14 December 2018

This extraordinary week has changed nothing. It’s still May’s deal or no deal


What a week! Just 100 hours ago the House of Commons was preparing fro the mother of all meaningful votes; a moment that would go a long way towards determining Theresa May’s time in office and establishing, one way or another, her legacy. If, indeed, she is fortunate enough to have such a thing.

It already feels as though the start of the week belongs to some distant epoch. One of those places place where hope was possible and progress something more than a fanciful product of wistful wishful thinking.

Since then, to recap, the government proved that it can at least still count and withdrew its proposal for the meaningful vote on the deal Theresa May has put before an ungrateful people. That then catalysed a Tory rebellion as, at long last, the requisite 48 letters of no confidence in the Prime Minister were handed to Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 committee. There would be a meaningful vote after all, albeit a different one from that envisaged as long ago as 24 hours previously.

Could the Prime Minister survive? Some of her critics complained that the unseemly haste with which the vote of confidence in her leadership was organised denied her opponents the time to organise their forces and recruit fresh troops to the cause. If so, they were outwitted by a Prime Minister in whose wits they have no faith themselves. Which, you may feel, is oddly revealing.

Nevertheless, a vote is a vote is a vote and having demanded one you cannot sensibly complain about getting what you desired. And, lo, the Prime Minister prevailed! Victory at last, albeit the kind of triumph that does not come with any kind of peace divided.

Indeed, the result — 200 MPs who back the Prime Minister and 117 who do not — could plausibly be reckoned the worst of all possible outcomes. A victory clear enough to secure the Prime Minister’s position but not conclusive enough to strengthen it. She has gained some peace from the harpies within her own party but only at the cost of reminding the world of the fundamental weakness of her position. She clings to office, limpet-like, but without any clear sense of purpose save to occupy the post because there is no-one obviously better-suited to this thankless task. Indeed, the more thankless the task, the more the Prime Minister seems to believe she is uniquely suited to it.

That, increasingly, is her unique selling point. Eventually this becomes a curious kind of bravado and might even be thought mildly unseemly but perhaps we have not yet, at least not quite, reached that point.

But there is no such thing as a trouble-free day in this vale of woes. So the Prime Minister’s trip to the continent to impress the need for revisions to the withdrawal agreement ended in humiliation. Not only were these pleadings rejected; softer language notionally more sensitive to the British position was removed from the communique. This is your deal, Britain, and you’ll lump it or reject it.

If there’s a better-than-usual case that the EU are in danger of behaving unreasonably it might also be allowed that they have not received much encouragement to behave more charitably. If the United Kingdom rejects an agreement agreed by the United Kingdom government that, in the end, is on the United Kingdom and it is difficult to see quite why the EU should agree to reopen an agreement that has already been agreed.

There is a feeling in European capitals that if it weren’t the backstop that was causing the problem it would be something else. That being so, giving the British wriggle room on the backstop will only encourage diehard Brexiteers to demand something else somewhere else. Since there is no hope of pacifying or satisfying these people, there is little reason to give them anything of what they want. In that sense, the Prime Minister’s hands have been tied by her own obstreperous backbenchers.

And so the underlying realities remain impossible. The UK cannot pass this deal; the EU cannot offer any other deal. As a matter of theory, that might seem to make a second referendum more probable. Politicians would, in effect, tell the great British public: you caused this mess, now you resolve it. But a second referendum requires the Labour party to change its mind and there is, as yet, little sign of this happening. Besides, a failure to pass any kind of withdrawal bill might bring the government crashing down producing the general election the Labour party considers much more important than a second referendum.

The prospect of no deal looms larger than ever. The alternative is accepting the Prime Minister’s deal despite its imperfections. The backstop, it is sometimes forgotten, is only an insurance policy to be paid-out if or when there is no agreement on a permanent economic and trading relationship with the EU at the end of the so-called transition period. Agree a deal and the backstop melts away. It is only designed to be permanent in the event of there being no agreement. Its permanence is conditional and so is its obsolescence.

There is a further grim irony, however, in that the very people who object to the backstop’s permanence are the same people who said an agreement, or series of agreements, with the EU would be among the most easily-negotiated deals in human history. Now, it seems, this may not be the case and we should contemplate a future in which no long-term agreement can be reached at all and, because of that, we shall be imprisoned by the backstop forever. Only one of these things can actually be true.

Nevertheless, the impasse remains. As yet nobody has proposed an alternative set of arrangements that can satisfy the House of Commons and the European Union. Until someone does the situation remains unchanged. This deal or no deal. This is not a false choice; it is the only choice that, for the moment at least, is on the table. Nothing in this long, exhausting, extraordinary, week has changed that. We are where we were and, to break out of this impasse, something will have to break for anything to change.

Alex Massie is a political commentator.