For United Kingdom’s Prime Minister Theresa May, Brexit does not mean Brexit. It means exit. There is nothing more exhilarating to the House of Commons than a leader on the run. There is a smell of blood in the water. Sharks cruise the corridors. British politicians set aside the nation’s interest. They default to raw ambition.
But it is not exit yet. May has nine lives, even if she is on her last one. For two years she has blundered. She has promised frictionless trade, but no Customs Union. She has rejected Norway and Canada. She has tried to appease everyone in the hope that something would turn up. Finally, at Chequers in the summer and again at the Cabinet on Wednesday, the basic weakness of Britain’s negotiating position was laid bare.
From day one after the referendum, Britain was supplicant to a neighbouring superpower. It was Poland to the European Union’s (EU) Russia. British members of parliament hate being reminded of such facts, preferring to vie with each other in jingoism. But May was right to rebut the historical illiteracy of her “toff Leavers”, with their reckless talk of vassalage, capitulation and Hitler. A deal with the EU is about crossborder trade, not conquest.
Given the nature of Britain’s economic geography, the most plausible long-term option for the UK has always been to negotiate a return to its old free-trade area status, some version of the so-called Norway option. The Downing Street draft leaves open such an option — as it leaves open a “hard Brexit”. It is about the immediate future next March, a choice between on the one hand no deal, Dover chaos, a hard border in Northern Ireland and snooping coastguards; and on the other, May’s proffered temporary compromise based on continuing membership of the Customs Union. The latter is palpably in the national interest. The reason so many of May’s Brexit ministers have resigned is that they know there is nothing better. They have guarded their careers, taken refuge in cowardice and flown the nest.
Since May cannot now rely on her own party, polluted as it is with disloyalists, she must show Brussels she has the support of parliament as a whole. While that may not secure her leadership, it should reassure the EU’s leaders that their agreed 585-page declaration is not defunct. This requires an early vote. Given that both parties are divided, it is in the national interest that the vote should be free.
At the time of the referendum, we were told that a majority of MPs were personally for remaining in the EU. The prime minister’s hope — and her intention in a plethora of private meetings — is to mobilise that majority in support of the deal. May’s mistake was to stress its hard rather than soft credentials. Everything she said was directed not at reassuring the soft-Brexit majority, but at appeasing her own hardliners. That is still an option under the deal. Why not vote with May? The problem, on display at the dispatch box, is that Labour leader Corbyn is positively gloating at the prospect of her downfall and a general election. If so, Labour will be complicit in a no-deal outcome.
Dogged and brave
Tory MPs have no alternative leader who, by any stretch of the imagination, can give Britain a “harder” Brexit than that negotiated by May. It therefore makes no sense for them to vote down May’s deal, which would almost certainly mean either her resignation or a general election — or both. As for Labour MPs, it is doubtful if they would really welcome a third election in quick succession, whatever Jeremy Corbyn may want. Can they not see that May’s deal offers them the way forward that most of them appear to want?
For all her past mistakes, May’s handling of Brexit in recent weeks has been dogged and brave. David Cameron’s referendum dealt her the toughest hand given to any prime minister since the Second World War — many would say near unplayable. May neither invites sympathy, nor is she an adept manager of people. Yet, for all the weakness of her hand, she has so far steered her negotiators and her Cabinet to a rickety compromise — one that is, for the time being, in the national interest. There is no other way in sight of getting through to next March without a chaotic disruption to UK trade.
Whatever the future holds for May, British MPs should surely support this next step on the rocky footpath to a new relationship with the EU. Heaven help us, there will be time for new arguments ahead.