The greatest victim of today’s indulgence is the national interestby Jonathan Lis / December 12, 2018 / Leave a comment
For all Brexit’s toxicity, it has always provided people with the comfort of their convictions. If we believe strongly in either Brexit or Remain, we know which side to support and defend. But today’s confidence vote provides a rare exception: people don’t know what to think. Whether seen through the lens of party political advantage or of Brexit, Theresa May’s moment of judgment offers neither catharsis nor hope. Disliked though she is by Leavers and Remainers, her departure will not provide long-term comfort to either. Indeed, not only does the Tory Party’s internecine disintegration deliver no obvious victory, it spells paralysis for the Brexit process either way.
If the prime minister wins tonight’s confidence vote, she will finally live up to one half of her doomed election slogan. Certainly not strong, but defiantly stable. Although the weakest and most inept prime minister in modern history, she will have the freedom to lead her party—and very possibly the country—for at least another 12 months, endowing her high office with the uniquely poor judgment she has generously demonstrated for the last two and a half years.
May has proved that she can only lead the country into paralysis. Her Brexit deal had joined the choir invisible before the ink was dry on its paper, but still she clings to it like a grieving friend in denial of reality. She tolerates no alternatives, listens to no advice, and lies that her deal delivers on the promises she spent two empty years repeating. Given the impossibility of a new leadership bid, it is not inconceivable that she will insist on pursuing her deal even if it creates a dangerous stand-off with parliament that takes us to the precipice. It seems unimaginable that she will ever recant her obsessive hostility to immigration, acceptance of which is the prerequisite not just for EU membership, but a soft Brexit. Worryingly for Remainers, May will never regain her authority, but could greatly increase her power.
Beyond Brexit, May’s fundamental problem is that her party will not want her even if it votes for her. One Tory MP told me that he was lending his support through fear of the alternatives. Many colleagues will feel the same. They will be saddled with a leader who likely cannot win a general election. That, at least, might offer the Labour Party some cheer.
If May loses tonight, what follows will be no better. Although her fiercest critics will permit themselves a moment of jubilation at the end of such unprecedentedly poor leadership, there is no guarantee that her successor would bring more success to the role. Key to this is the likelihood of a new prime minister who is even more devoted to Brexit. Of the likely candidates, Boris Johnson, David Davis, Dominic Raab and Michael Gove have fully immersed themselves in Brexit’s dishonesty, while ex-Remainers Sajid Javid, Jeremy Hunt and Gavin Williamson compete to dedicate themselves to the new faith. Only Amber Rudd remains a Remainer, and not only does she sit on a majority of just 346, but it is profoundly unlikely the Tory grassroots would support her.
The central outrage is that the confidence motion appears at a moment of genuine national crisis. Tuesday’s planned vote on the Brexit deal was perhaps parliament’s most significant since the Second World War, and in the wake of its delay we face weeks of limbo and uncertainty just three months from our legally-enshrined date of EU departure. Throw in a protracted and no doubt vicious Tory leadership battle, and business and consumer confidence could quickly plunge. Certainly, jittery investors are seeking urgent signals that we are not about to commit economic hara-kiri, and this will not reassure them.
Despite the gloom, we can look forward to one or two positive outcomes. A victory for May would represent the definitive, comprehensive and richly deserved defeat for the fanatical European Research Group, whose fervour for a no-deal Brexit would immolate jobs and communities. Such charlatans and agitators as Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg would see their influence perhaps fatally diminished. An ex-minister even suggested to me today that May loyalists might have encouraged the letter-writing in order to “flush them out” and conduct a minor purge. This figure even suggested that a win could give May the necessary breathing space to shift her position away from her deal to what many commentators now see as the least unlikely Brexit outcome: a new referendum. That seems implausible, but so does everything else.
The most crucial point is also the most tragic. The hardline Brexiters are smarting from what they perceive as an existential betrayal, but in the end their greatest enemy was reality itself. May could not give them what they wanted because it didn’t exist. No mortal successor will fare any better. Even the purest Brexiter will find themselves holding the same cards and languishing in the same political abyss. Nobody will be able to renegotiate a deal with Brussels—least of all one that touches the Irish backstop or border.
Perhaps the greatest victim of today’s indulgence is the national interest. As with everything else in the Brexit story, jobs and livelihoods have become pawns in a Tory psychodrama that resurrects itself for each successive generation. While that party’s sporadic civil war has formed a well-loved national entertainment for many decades, rarely have ordinary people’s lives been so overtly proffered as collateral damage. In truth, the situation facing Britain will be awful if May wins or loses. The Conservative Party is of course welcome to incapacitate itself—but perhaps one day its MPs might pause before incapacitating the country.