This week, Theresa May lost another Parliamentary vote on another of her government’s proposals for Brexit. In truth, her proposal was disingenuous: she claimed to offer her Withdrawal Agreement without the Irish Backstop, but in reality she was again offering non-binding reassurances about the Backstop, while seeking to rule-out leaving the EU without a deal. Ruling out “no-deal” would strengthen her claim that we must get behind any deal, while she pretends that only one deal is available – the proposed Withdrawal Agreement that Parliament has already rejected.
Her fellow Conservatives weren’t fooled. Almost a quarter of Conservative MPs voted against her – again.
May should change her habits, but instead she puts all her energies into faking change. She pretends to listen, but actually concedes both sides, during separate private meetings. She pretends to change her proposal, but keeps everything suggestive, while narrowing the options back to what she had always proposed, the same old false choices, the same old risks that she herself created and is exacerbating – by running down the clock to 29 March 2019.
The spin started Saturday: the loyal editors of The Sunday Times – presumably in consultation with the Prime Minister’s Office – typed their false claim that her proposal is the only deal on the table – a phrase she has consistently peddled. This is false. Her proposal itself has evolved – it dates from November, as a replacement for the one she revealed in July. Meanwhile, she has ignored other proposals, even from her own Department for Exiting the EU, from her own backbenchers such as the European Research Group, and think-tanks of all parties. (Remember that David Davis tried to raise his department’s proposal at Chequers in July, but she foisted on the Cabinet a proposal that she and her unelected unqualified lackey Olly Robbins had negotiated with the EU without the Cabinet’s oversight.)
Also on Saturday, May sent a letter to her own MPs , which is as long and as tricky as they come, and deserves some exposure. (It is reproduced on a separate page of this site.)
Notice that she starts by admitting that Parliament had already rejected her proposed Withdrawal Agreement, and – on 29 January – voted to force her to seek a new deal with alternatives to the backstop. She claims that her “Government will continue its work to secure changes to the Backstop.”
Instead of specifying any changes to the Backstop, she wastes five paragraphs – more than 550 words – documenting her many meetings with different luminaries of the EU – she literally offers lists. Here, she is not offering an argument, just a list of evidence that she’s been busy, but being busy is not a measure of success. Ironically, her busy-ness just reminds us how much time she has wasted achieving nothing. The EU has conceded nothing, but has reiterated that it won’t concede its prior victory on the Backstop (which, remember, keeps Northern Ireland in the EU even if the rest of Britain leaves, and does so indefinitely, with the EU’s veto).
Finally, after more than a page of drowning in events, May offers her first argument, which amounts to an appeal to support her policy on purely partisan grounds.
She says that the Conservative Party is “a broad church in which a wide range of views co-exist, united behind shared Conservative principles.” Again, I am struck by another self-defeating argument. May is the least conservative Party leader since Edward Heath: her government has raised taxes and spending, competes with Labour on promises to spend more on the NHS and to retain the EU’s environmental and labour regulations, proposes to seize private property to pay for social care, and shares with Labour a preference for keeping Britain in the customs union, and for deceiving the electorate with silence, avoidance, Project Fear, and spin.
Thus, we get her commitments to “Brexit means Brexit” but also scare-mongering about leaving anything. Indeed, the letter contains this impossible promise: “a negotiated deal that protects our close economic relationship, maintains our security co-operation[,] and meets the needs of all parts of the United Kingdom.” She is literally committing to pleasing everybody, which contradicts her prior pledges to honour a referendum with two incompatible sides (winner and loser).
In the process, the PM misguidedly appeals to her own ethos: “I have sought to steer a course that can unite all pragmatic points of view behind a clear and coherent policy”. That’s unintendedly laughable: she must be the most inconsistent, opaque, dishonest, and unreliable leader of any party since Tony Blair.
Then the prime minister appeals to history: “History will judge us for the parts we have played in this process.” Again, I am left asking: How inept is the Prime Minister’s Office that it passes language that just reminds us of May’s historical failures, while she attempts to pass the buck to the rest of us?
She appeals for “compromises necessary to reach and take through Parliament a withdrawal agreement which delivers on the result of the referendum” – but she’s the one who develops policies without consultation, betrays promises, and will not honour majority will (from the referendum, general election, Parliament votes, or her own party membership).
Then we get her usual false choices: “Without a withdrawal agreement we risk a combination forming in Parliament that will stop Brexit altogether.”
No, the choice is not between her deal and no Brexit, or her deal and no deal, but between her deal and a free trade agreement – that’s what she promised us in 2017. She should get on with it. As she has said before: no deal is better than a bad deal, and anything short of a free trade agreement is either a bad deal or no Brexit.