My Orcadian Column 22/11/18

In politics, as in life, attempting to please all of the people all of the time is seldom a recipe for success.  As she fielded questions on her Brexit deal for the best part of three hours in the House of Commons last Thursday, however, it was clear that the Prime Minister had succeeded in alienating just about everybody all at the same time.

To an extent, there was an inevitability to all of this. During the campaign leading up to the Brexit vote in June 2016, promises were made about the untold riches that awaited if only the UK were to throw off the shackles of European Union membership.  From continuing to enjoy unfettered access to the Single Market to having £350m per week to lavish on the NHS, never has so much cake been offered for both the eating and the keeping.

Theresa May deserves some credit for seeing through this bluster at the time, although her campaigning for Remain was every bit as lukewarm as that of Jeremy Corbyn.  Once in 10 Downing Street after David Cameron’s hasty departure, however, she set about making the task of dealing with the fall-out from the referendum needlessly more difficult.

When not simply repeating the inane mantra of ‘Brexit means Brexit’, Mrs May laid out a series of red lines that boxed her in for the negotiations ahead.  Starting the clock running by triggering Article 50 before there was any clear agreement within government about the approach to take to those negotiations also appeared reckless.  Yet the greatest hubris of all was convincing herself and her party that leaving things unchanged on the island of Ireland was achievable while simultaneously withdrawing from the EU Single Market and Customs Union.

Having been forced finally to accept that this was a fiction to far, the Prime Minister finds herself trying to sell a compromise that few find palatable and most accept poses risks to the constitutional make-up of the UK.  As a result, amid ministerial resignations and very public efforts by some in her party to oust her, the chances of Mrs May securing a majority in parliament for the deal look vanishingly slim.

At a human level, it is hard not to feel a little sympathy for the Prime Minister when witnessing the behaviour of some of the hardline Tory Brexiteers. Even so, Mrs May must accept a share of the blame for emboldening them from the outset by declaring that ‘no deal was better than a bad deal’.  She has since come to realise the lunacy of that assertion, but not before allowing the idea to take root in the first place.

Interestingly, on Wednesday evening, as she addressed the media outside 10 Downing Street after the fractious Cabinet meeting that signed off her compromise, Mrs May accepted for the first time that there are actually three choices: her deal, no deal or not leaving the EU at all. While the intention was clearly to persuade hardliners in her own party to fall into line, it was also an acknowledgement by the Prime Minister of the growing momentum behind calls for a People’s Vote on what happens next.

She is not alone. Philip Colllins, writing in The Times at the weekend, observed that Jacob Rees-Mogg et al are “incapable of compromise, drunk on self-righteousness and vanity, these saboteurs are killing their own project”.  One can but hope.

Any hope this might be achieved by electing a Labour government, though, was comprehensively dismantled by Jeremy Corbyn earlier this week in an interview with Sky News.  As well as revealing an alarming ignorance of the Brexit negotiation process, he also declared himself unsure how he would vote in the event of the public being given the final say.  It was excruciating stuff and a far cry from where most in his party wish to be.

In truth, of course, this issue transcends parties. Ultimately, though, with Mrs May’s deal looking dead in the water, and the prospect of ‘no deal’ looming ever larger, the only sensible option is for the public to ‘take back control’ over Brexit in a People’s Vote

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