Theresa May - as seen in Germany

Negotiations end in chaos

Even if Theresa May manages to strong-arm Brexit negotiations to their next phase, there is a long way to go. Paul Demarty asks if she has the staying power

So the levee has burst at last. With Brexit negotiations no longer delayable, Theresa May’s attempts to break the deadlock without being hung for a traitor by her own backbenchers has - despite having come agonisingly close to some kind of success - collapsed.

We were not the only ones surprised to discover that, for all Boris Johnson’s bluster on the question, a substantial ‘divorce bill’ payment did not prove to be the starting gun for a Brexiteer rebellion. With that out of the way, May might have believed that she was over the line; that, when it came to it, her braying back-bench tormentors were all mouth and no trousers. Perhaps it was confidence with regard to them that led to complacency in the face of the Democratic Unionist Party, which threw a wobbly when the details of an agreement over the status of the Irish border was leaked to the Dublin press. Arlene Foster, the DUP’s swivel-eyed chief, noisily objected to the content of the deal - which would seem to exempt the Six Counties from most Brexit provisions for the time being - as well as to the fact that she had not been consulted on it. The Tory true believers rapidly regained the spirit of Agincourt, and between them reduced the tentative agreements to tatters.

In some respects, we feel obliged to offer May some grudging words of admiration. For we have to place things in stark reality - a crisis of this type was quite inevitable from the very moment she popped round to see Her Maj to renew her premiership of the country, in spite of her astonishing humiliation in June. Even when the DUP finally decided that they had been offered enough of the fruit of the magic money tree to prop up her government, it was clear that their support was not based on the history of friendly cooperation referred to by Foster and May in their press conference bromides, but naked self-interest, and was therefore highly conditional. It is thus some kind of achievement that May lasted close to six months without a lurch into the sort of chaos that greeted her on the morning of December 4. She managed to walk about three-fifths of the tightrope before looking down.

Alas, very much of her ‘strategy’ - if you can call the endless series of minor acts of self-preservation that have characterised her calamitous second term a strategy - relied on delaying the inevitable, and delays will only take you so far. The Europeans have been perfectly clear all along what their preconditions for negotiations were - divorce bill, Irish border, EU citizens’ rights in Britain. All three must be agreed to the satisfaction of the remaining member-states.

All were difficult to swallow for the Brexit-bonkers Tory right. Feeding this evil empire billions of pounds of Danegeld rather stuck in the craw, and in his various bids for the sort of glory that goes out in blazes, Boris Johnson put May in a difficult position by repeatedly denying that it was necessary to pay a penny. An open border with Europe was hardly the sort of thing anyone had in mind, even if it was with Ireland; the same goes for the people who are already over here, in our jobs. The DUP’s schizophrenic attitude to the question of the Irish border - economically dependent on trade with the 26 counties, but irreconcilably opposed to union with a continent so riddled with republicans and Papists - complicates matters further.

The story is still developing. David Davis - once a mercilessly professional ultra-Thatcherite irritant to a series of Tory leaders, but now looking more and more out of his depth with the Brexit portfolio - moved on December 5 to claim that the proposals for Northern Ireland’s future with respect to Europe were in fact proposals for the whole of the United Kingdom, which might have some chance of neutralising the complaint from Scotland (and London, in the form of the ever-opportunistic Sadiq Khan) that what is good for Ulster might equally well be extended to the strongly-remainer Scottish National Party and the capital itself.

So far as the DUP is concerned, it is not a great help - if one is being escorted to the gallows, one is unlikely to be reassured to be told that the rest of the family will also be making the jump.

Leadership challenge?

If May manages to get out of this crisis, there are unfortunately (for her) many more to follow afterwards. There is a great deal of commentary in the British press - some gloating, from the ‘remoaners’, and some ecstatic in their fury, from their enemies - touching on the undeniable reality that the Europeans hold most of the cards in this particular game. David Davis may tell us otherwise, but if the Europeans were genuinely concerned that hard Brexit was unsurvivable, then they would surely have tried harder to avoid it, rather than sticking hard to their red lines.

That is not to say that they are insouciant about the debacle this is turning into, in whose fairground mirror they must necessarily find some aspect of their reflection. If one feels some sympathy for May, in spite of everything, spare also a thought for Jean-Claude Juncker, Michel Barnier and friends, who must feel sometimes that they are not negotiating with a government, but the entire cast of a Noel Coward play. One such despairing Eurocrat told TheGuardian:

We cannot go on like this, with no idea what the UK wants. She just has to have the conversation with her own cabinet, and if that upsets someone, or someone resigns, so be it. She has to say what kind of trading relationship she is seeking. We cannot do it for her, and she cannot defer forever.

But what else can she do? There are the usual anonymous whispers to the effect that May faces a leadership challenge if she cannot sort this out by the end of the week; but a new leader will inherit basically the same mess. He or she will equally have to walk that tightrope (if she is not replaced with someone like the self-satirising recusant, Jacob Rees-Mogg, who would merely cry, ‘God for Harry, Meghan, England and St George’, and dive off into the abyss). Depending on what wing of the Tories a putative usurper comes from, the parliamentary arithmetic might look a little different, but the broad outline is the same - there are people who know that they are the representatives of capital, which despises Brexit, and people who think that they are representatives of the petty bourgeoisie, which (so conceived) adores it, but not enough of either to command an effective majority in parliament.

A new leader means a fresh election, or it means the same old problems. Yet that looks alarmingly risky at the moment. Theresa May’s great achievement is the scotching of the myth (believed by me as much as anyone else) that, all things being equal, a Jeremy Corbyn government was as remote a possibility as the emergence of a Zoroastrian theocracy in Hertfordshire. But having caught up enough on the campaign trail to humiliate May, Labour - with that man at the helm - is holding a small but steady lead in the polls.

Corbyn has allowed Kier Starmer and his Europhile confrères to set the agenda when it comes to Brexit, with the presumed intention of telegraphing to wider society, ‘We are ready to sort this mess out - give us a majority.’ For now, that is not working - the proof being that May still has a job. The Financial Times continues to insist that a Corbyn government would be worse than any conceivable version of Brexit. It is just possible that a Tory Party without May at the helm would be able to win a thumping enough victory to remove the need for support from the DUP. Yet May herself was supposed to be able to see off this opposition.

Nobody is taking any chances - and so this absurd, paralysed parliament is likely to continue, whether or not May sticks it out herself.