Theresa May’s strategy for getting her Brexit deal through parliament? Masochism
If she can win the vote, she seems to think she can do it through sheer persistence, forcing public opinion to respect her sincere attempt to negotiate a deal
I am not sure it is going to work, but there is something admirable about the prime minister’s sheer resilience. When the first part of the Brexit deal was agreed and published last week she took questions from MPs for three hours. Today, she did the same on the second part of the deal.
In between she has held a news conference, been on a radio phone-in, given interviews, taken questions yesterday, flown to Brussels and will be back there on Saturday. All the while being howled at by members of her own party, who disagree with her, and shouted at by members of the opposition, who broadly agree with her. The voices on her own benches in her support are few and not exactly whole-hearted.
Yet I think the general public is impressed by her. There is some hard evidence for this. YouGov for The Times yesterday recorded a 13-point swing from “May should go” to “May should stay” in a week. But I also hear people on radio phone-ins saying how much they respect her for working hard and resolutely in difficult circumstances.
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There also seemed to be less hostility towards her plan in the House of Commons today than there was last week, when most Conservative MPs who spoke seemed genuinely shocked that she had gone ahead and secured the deal she said she wanted.
Today, she offered a peace offering to two of her hard-Brexit critics, thanking Iain Duncan Smith and Owen Paterson, former cabinet ministers, for their ideas on how technology could solve the Irish border question in future. She refrained from pointing out that they might as well believe in UFOs.
But they were resistant to flattery and both asked her to get rid of the backstop – or, as I prefer to call it, the guarantee of an open border in Ireland.
She got absolutely nothing from the other hard Brexiters behind her either. They queued up to condemn the deal. Dominic Raab, recent Brexit secretary, said it was the “regrettable but inescapable reality that this deal gives more control away”. Boris Johnson had a pre-cooked soundbite: “We should junk forthwith the backstop.. which makes a complete nonsense of Brexit.”
Then the pro-EU wing of her party piled in from the other side, with Justine Greening and Dominic Grieve demanding that the decision be sent “back to the people” in a further referendum. And all the while the “back to the people” line was echoed from the opposition benches – except from the leader of the opposition himself.
Jeremy Corbyn delivered a well crafted speech. He is still getting better at this stuff, even if he did read out his speech with his head down most of the time. He had some good lines, but they were merely knockabout. Commenting on the emptiness of a lot of the non-binding rhetoric in the political declaration, he said: “She says ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’; indeed, nothing is agreed.”
As the afternoon droned on, more Tory loyalists lined up to praise the prime minister’s hard work and determination and to declare the deal the best that could be achieved.
It was not obvious in the House of Commons today how Theresa May could possibly win the crucial vote on this deal – the withdrawal agreement and political declaration together. The hard Brexiters on her side couldn’t muster 48 letters to challenge her leadership, but they have many more votes than that against her Brexit deal.
She also loses votes from her pro-EU wing. And the opposition parties show no inclination to help her.
If she can win the vote, she seems to think she can do it through sheer persistence, persuading the public and through them their MPs by her sincere attempt to negotiate a deal that both respects the referendum and keeps us in a close economic relationship with the EU.
If the capacity to endure political pain could decide the vote, she would win.
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