A rum do

5 April 2019

What a week! What should have been the first days of Brexit have left me as much a rabbit in the headlights as anyone, astonished by the collapse of national direction. This takes us straight to May, who so far from being the toast I expected, continues to drag the country along her unfathomable course. It really is a rum do. But then her trajectory is but one of several mysteries taking us to our dishevelled condition. Before this main question, let us touch on a few of the others.

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Our negotiators have conducted themselves throughout as though hog-tied. Specifically, they set no test for the EU’s construction of “sincere co-operation” which has proved as one-sided as might be feared; they did not walk out - even for a few hours; they posed no challenge to the EU’s sequencing or its separation of the withdrawal agreement (WA) from subsequent relations; they accepted the principle and unconditionality of payments, with nothing along the lines of a counter-claim; they did nothing to make their case directly to EU member-states, industry or citizens - or to the world at large; and they failed to comfort the UK public as to no-deal or to make public provision for it.

Of course, we know the familiar explanations: a split cabinet, the failed election, the preponderance of Remainer MPs. I would add the objective of cultivating the UK’s reputation as an adherent to the rule of law, particularly bearing in mind that new rounds of trade negotiation were in prospect. But none of this is an adequate explanation for such clumsy conduct. It’s a mystery.

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Some more mysteries. No-one dwells upon the EU overplaying its hand, with the one-sidedness of the WA making it hard for any self-respecting legislature to swallow. No-one in the UK has tried to get Ireland on side with the most obvious blandishments - kind words and hard cash. No-one has gone over the evidence asserting that no deal would be a disaster. And as extension comes onto the agenda, no-one is trying to compute the costs of uncertainty.

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But all of this is junior to the greatest mystery. For whom does May believe she is governing? The WA always lacked support in the Commons and the country. She has now tacked first to cross-party overtures - almost certainly in vain; and then to renewed indicative votes, which at risk of repetition simply do not address the weaknesses of the WA, as they are concerned with either end-states, eg, the Customs Union; or resolution mechanisms, eg, a second referendum.

Parenthetically to note that May’s aides have been selling her deal to Corbyn’s team as promising the equivalent of a Customs Union in all but title - just as her critics claimed. In addition, the current wheeze of a “confirmatory vote” commends itself to MPs as enabling them to shift responsibility onto the public; so much for Burke.

But this takes us back to the mystery of May’s tenacity and its latest manifestation, the extension. Her cabinet would prefer to get out promptly (fourteen to ten, we gather), her Parliamentary party has indicated likewise (170 signatories to that effect out of 314 MPs); and the very country prefers it according to today’s Sky poll. Tonight, her briefers are putting it about that she cleaves to the WA because of the Union with Northern Ireland. Really?

A final note on the Cooper Bill, which seems to be stuck in the Lords at time of writing. It may be overtaken by events, with May sending her letter to Brussels for an extension. Even so, isn’t there something odd in a blocking bill, passed by the single vote of an MP convicted for perjury and facing recall by her electors?

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I have previously suggested that May has stretched constitutional propriety to the limit. She must now be reaching the boundary of how far she can go without disabling blow-back, at best from her party, at worst from the streets. Only the rules of the parliamentary Tories and the support of the DUP keep her in office, but they make her as unstoppable as a zombie. Once we might have hoped to cultivate the UK’s reputation for orderly conduct. Now we are headed for a darker place. Escaping will call for sizeable slugs of toughness with our neighbours, where once smaller doses would have sufficed. And domestically we will need statesmanship of a higher order than that of late to hand. At best then, a rum do.