May’s fate could depend on Labour rebels

Published by The i paper (24th September, 2018)

Who would have guessed that like Aretha Franklin, all Theresa May wanted was a little respect? Forget the fact her country is hurtling towards car crash departure from Brussels, her cabinet largely views her with contempt, her party is ripping itself apart and businesses look in fear at the foggy view ahead. Our Prime Minister was so upset over a silly jibe on social media by European Council president Donald Tusk that she socked it straight back to those rude foreigners with a warning they might walk back into talks and find that she’s gone.

Brexit, our national tragedy, has descended into a childish beef – although May’s staged anger after her self-inflicted Salzburg shambles lacked the dignity shown by the late, great Queen of Soul. Perhaps fresh from throwing dance shapes in South Africa, the Prime Minister is inspired more by mouthy hip-hop stars. But that death stare in Downing Street was not aimed at Berlin and Budapest but at Birmingham, where she was facing a rocky reception from diminished Tory forces when they gather for annual conference.

This spat shows again how our country, once famous for pragmatism, is simply collateral damage in a savage Tory struggle over Europe. May’s jingoistic response to Salzburg was risible when the other 27 EU states have been clear from the start they will not corrode core tenets to patch over cracks in the Conservative Party. Britain can have a Norway-style deal, subject to club rules and with access to markets, or a Canada-style pact with more freedom but restricted access – and this means either we join the customs union or reinstate some kind of Irish border.

This is a nightmarish dilemma given our political stasis. But May’s anger exposes only fear and weakness. She screwed up the election with her own incompetence, ensuring there was no parliamentary majority for any kind of Brexit. She triggered Article 50 with no idea how to achieve a workable deal, an act of breathtaking folly. She arrogantly defines the referendum result to suit her own narrow terms. She cobbled together Chequers with the clock running out, then obstinately ignored all the voices in Westminster, Whitehall and across Europe warning it was not viable. Now she blames Brussels after slamming inevitably into the buffers.

Could there be more fertile ground for an opposition amid such agonies? Yet Labour did not even dare put up people for key news shows. No doubt Jeremy Corbyn thinks this is smart politics, keeping his powder dry and party intact while Tories feud, but it shows again his unfitness for office after the anti-Semitism scandal. Imagine the damage a political operator such as Harold Wilson or Tony Blair could have inflicted on this government shambles. Instead, there is just deafening silence and desertion from the most important political fight of our age. No wonder his personal ratings are plummeting.

There is nothing socialist about assisting a Brexit that will hurt poor communities, especially in harness with hard-right nationalists – although we saw this before from Corbyn with his dismal referendum efforts. Almost one in four constituency parties are pushing for a second vote, backed by a huge majority of activists according to a weekend poll, yet the leadership will spend this week’s conference in contortions to continue a duplicitous Brexit balancing act rather than offer principled opposition. Is it surprising there is despair over Westminster amid such deviousness on all sides?

Meanwhile the dangers of disastrous no deal come daily closer – along with the terrible reality this toxic debate over departure terms could drag on for years, sweeping aside pressing societal problems while Britain’s internal traumas are largely ignored elsewhere. The most likely solution now is that May drifts even further right to force through a blind Brexit, filled with fudges and vague Canada-style commitments to ensure Britain leaves the EU and Brussels gets its cash. This might be enough to seduce the hard-right, while Tory moderates are mostly wimps when it comes to rebellion, so could win a parliamentary majority.

Yet if May does still pull off her desired deal then her fate depends on Labour rivals. For if you assume a significant block of perma-rebels on the Tory right remain steadfast in their fanatical refusal to compromise, especially with talk of more cabinet resignations, then she must rely on foes to win a majority. And while there are a tiny handful of Labour Brexiteers, they are too few for a majority when Jacob Rees-Mogg’s gang scream about betrayal.

Two more groups of Labour MPs might have backed May: those such as former Europe minister Caroline Flint in strongly Brexit-backing constituencies, plus some moderates – with no love for Corbyn and his strategy of forcing an election at any cost – saying privately they might back her on basis it would be best now for Britain. They might just have pushed her over the finish line by cancelling out the anti-European ultras. Yet one leading light in this group told friends over the weekend they can no longer back May after her tantrum.

The great irony of Friday’s rant is this friendless Prime Minister may survive her own party conference – but in doing so, has either sown seeds of her own political destruction or forced her party further into the arms of the nationalist right. For if she killed off slender hopes for a negotiated Brexit deal, she has clearly not done enough to win over the unruly headbangers. The only certainty is this disturbing crisis in our divided country still has a long way to run – and almost any outcome remains possible. But who in their right minds thinks the main Westminster players merit slightest respect after their performances in this appalling farce?

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