The PM conceded that Remainers could still halt the processby Jonathan Lis / October 5, 2018 / Leave a comment
When you have a prime minister as steeped in delusion as Theresa May, it is worth noting and applauding the occasional smuggled burst of truth.
Let us not get ahead of ourselves. The prime minister embedded her conference speech in unreality. She told us that Britain had leverage; that no-deal was better than a bad deal; that you could back business while also backing hard Brexit.
At times the hypocrisy risked veering into parody. May resolved to put the national interest first, while advancing a policy her own government admits will shrink growth. She lamented the decline of political compromise, while interpreting a narrow referendum result as a mandate to sever the basic moorings of our economy. She declared “we must be a party that is not in thrall to ideology,” while implicitly proposing a no-deal scenario of empty supermarkets and cancelled radiotherapy as a price worth paying to unilaterally alter New Zealand’s dairy tariffs.
And yet, on Wednesday Theresa May told the truth three times. Each truth proved devastating.
First, she argued that if she ruled out no-deal, she “would weaken our negotiating position and have to agree to whatever the EU offers.” That is entirely correct—and it is a vital admission. More important, however, is what she did not say: she doesn’t have to rule out no-deal, because it rules itself out.
Why? Because by the government’s own analysis it de-certifies UK aircraft and aviation personnel in the EU and risks economic cataclysm. May promised that “resilience” and “ingenuity” would see us through no-deal, but no amount of either resource can unblock French customs or unmake EU aviation law.
Then there is the inescapable parliamentary conundrum. Hitherto loyal Tory backbenchers such as Amber Rudd and Nick Boles have promised to block no-deal. Given the firm stance of the opposition parties, no-deal is not possible either politically or mathematically.
And so May was absolutely right. We will “have to agree to whatever the EU offers.” Which brings us to her second truth.
The prime minister confirmed what Remain commentators concluded—to Brexiters’ derision—many months ago. The EU identifies our choices as these: “either a deal that keeps us in the EU in all but name, keeps free movement… and stops us signing trade deals with other countries,” she said, “or a deal that carves off Northern Ireland.”
The need for an invisible Irish land border means that Northern Ireland will have to remain in the customs union and single market in goods; and because the EU regards the single market as indivisible, the UK as a whole cannot adopt it for goods without accepting the rest of it as well. Consequently, the only options available to the government are the full single market and customs union for the whole UK, or a customs and regulation border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. If May accepts a customs union, she abandons the “independent trade policy” of tariff-based trade deals. And if she accepts the single market, she abandons her commitment to end free movement of people.
Her first truth combined with her second lead to a seemingly ineluctable conclusion: May will have to accept either a fully soft Brexit or a divided United Kingdom. Because she has no leverage to avoid it, she has no alternative but to concede it.
May is trapped, and so is her party. No amount of rhetoric or applause in a Birmingham conference hall can change the facts or deadlines in a Brussels negotiating room.
All of which leads to her final, and most significant truth. The Tories had to come together, she said. “If we don’t—if we all go off in different directions in pursuit of our own visions of the perfect Brexit—we risk ending up with no Brexit at all.”
It is clear why she said it. The Tory base is unhappy; it hates the Chequers proposal; many are yearning for change, possibly in the shape of a certain mop-haired egomaniac. May needed a coded threat to those opponents and waverers. Namely, if they jettisoned her apparent pragmatism for Boris Johnson’s comforting extremism, they might lose their dream altogether.
But you cannot make a statement just to satisfy your own interests. What functioned as a threat to Brexiters now represents a startling breakthrough for Remainers. In stating openly that “no Brexit” was a possibility, May revealed the necessary corollary: we might, in the end, actually stay in the EU.
The People’s Vote campaign is gaining popularity. Polls indicate a majority in favour of a final-say referendum and in almost all cases a Remain win. Parliament is deadlocked. For so long a niche fantasy scorned even by mainstream Remainers, the prospect of a new referendum is strengthening while the government’s Brexit strategy implodes. And now the prime minister has for the first time implicitly conceded that it might take place and that her opponents might win.
Theresa May’s trilogy of revelations were starkly simple but devastatingly misunderstood. While the crowd revelled in the prime minister’s determined battle cry, they failed to notice her outright surrender. Most poignantly of all, so did she.
Brexit is really a process of elimination. We can’t have no-deal. Therefore we must have a deal. Based on the UK’s vastly inferior leverage, that deal must be conducted on the EU’s terms. And if those terms prove unacceptable, we can still opt not to continue Brexit at all. The prime minister may not yet have joined the dots, but she assembled them all in order on Wednesday. In the end all she had to do was tell the truth.