The government is missing
As the clock ticks down, nobody is meaningfully in charge, writes Paul Demarty
There is still, officially, an entity that bears the name of her majesty’s government. It is a Conservative administration, with Theresa May as prime minister, notionally propped up by the Democratic Unionist Party in a ‘confidence and supply agreement’.
However, such a description is hardly convincing any longer. The DUP has no confidence in the Tories not to sacrifice its beloved union, that’s for sure; so far as ‘supply’ goes, the DUP seems like a source only of migraines - and demands for Danegeld to shore up its Orange clientelism in the Six Counties. It is hard to call this a Conservative government, when the major factions of the Tories in the cabinet take it in turns to resign in small squads. As for Theresa May, she is a dead duck, and the only question facing the world is when she will finally resign. Boris Johnson is already gearing up his leadership campaign. So is Michael Gove. So are at least a dozen others. To use a phrase flying around a lot lately, we have today a PM in name only, heading a government in name only, staffed by a party in name only, supported by a partner in name only. The only surprising thing about the Commons at large - forgive me - ‘taking back control’ of the Brexit process on March 25 was that it took them so bloody long.
Between my article last week and this one, much has happened, but - as is typical of the Groundhog Day experience of Brexit - we do not seem to have gotten anywhere else. Having declined to force her third ‘meaningful’ vote (meaningful, of course, in name only … ), May allowed herself to be talked into a disastrous speech condemning MPs for standing in the way of the people’s will. Her already slender chance of winning her deal collapsed. In that context, she could hardly expect a rapturous reception in Europe, as she attended the European Council summit. She asked for a short, technical extension to article 50 - until the end of May (the month, not herself). She got a veritable bonsai tree of an extension - to April 12: the last day for Britain to pass legislation to hold elections for the European parliament. If she could get a deal through by then, the deadline would go back to May 22; if not, there would be a no-deal exit, unless the political deadlock could somehow be resolved.
Fervid speculation over the weekend that May might be offloaded by the cabinet, and replaced by David Lidington for the time being, amounted to nothing (the Tories seem to be entirely bereft of their old killer instincts); so it was on to Plan A (since she has no other plans). The vote people call MV3 was to have taken place by the time you read this; but various MPs arranged a do-over for Yvette Cooper’s ‘take back control’ motion of a few months back. To see that off, May needed at the very least the support of her own Brexiteers and the DUP. The Brexiteers promised to come on board if the DUP would; initially DUP sources were reporting the unionists willing to come on board if May had consistent Tory support, but they accepted the hot potato from Jacob Rees-Mogg and co, and gave May a firm ‘no’. May then made a point of implying that the lack of a devolved government in Stormont made the prospect of a no-deal Brexit worse - a calculated insult, seeing as that state of affairs is indubitably the fault of the corrupt, blundering DUP. They are not eager to come back on side at this point.
So MV3 disappeared into the ether, and we got our indicative votes, to be narrowed down on March 27 and put to a vote on April 1. May, of course, has ruled out implementing anything at variance with Tory manifesto policy. Nonetheless, MPs went ahead and voted on eight options: in the event none of them secured a majority. The crisis therefore deepens.
The question of where all this leaves Brexit remains a matter of intense confusion across the board. Jacob Rees-Mogg, trying gently to nudge his ERG comrades back into the government fold (provided, of course, that the DUP comes on board), declared that the two available outcomes were her deal or no Brexit. But for the moment at least the DUP is standing firm. Its Brexit spokesman, Sammy Wilson said he would prefer a long delay rather than be subject to the tyranny of the withdrawal agreement as it stands:
Even if we are forced into a one-year extension, we at least would have a say on the things which affect us during that time and would have the right to unilaterally decide to leave at the end of that one-year period through the simple decision of not applying for a further extension. Surely this is a better strategy than volunteering to be locked into the prison of the withdrawal deal with the cell door key in the pocket of Michel Barnier?1
Rivers of blood
This is quite a problem for May, who needs both the ERG and the DUP on board - or else half the parliamentary Labour Party - to limp over the line. Time will tell whether this ‘rivers of blood’ attitude prevails, or rather an arrangement can be reached if the price is right. Time is in short supply, however.
May’s behaviour is so apparently erratic because she is in a quite impossible position. Every so often, a particularly controversial issue defeats a government’s ability to whip its supporters into line; when this problem becomes clear, the solution is obvious. The premier goes on the offensive, calling fresh elections to get a mandate for her policy. It is also the case that sometimes a government’s authority is flagging badly; the ‘solution’, in this situation, is to delay the calling of elections, in order to get as much legislation through parliament as possible, and to hope that something comes up to spare electoral humiliation.
May is tumbling into the chasm between these two manageable problems. The vicissitudes of Brexit have shattered her parliamentary support, but she cannot call an election because she has promised not to fight another. The Tories can certainly win at the next time of asking; but they would be well advised to have someone else at the helm. Meanwhile, the issue that has broken her party has hard time limits attached to it, and does so because she decided to invoke article 50 and call an election in that order two years ago.
Since that time, the objective need - from the point of view of the British state - has been for fresh elections. Circumstances conspire to prevent them, however. Not the least of them is the leader of the opposition; the 2017 election result was a vindication of his own strategy of myopic laser-focus on bread-and-butter issues, combined with anti-establishment posturing, as much as it was an indictment of May’s attempt to fight it out on Brexit and her being a ‘safe pair of hands’. Nobody in the British establishment wants to call an election that the Tories will not win; and, while the relentless campaign of slander against the Labour left for its purported ‘anti-Semitism’, together with the Independent Group split, has made the polling numbers look better for the Tories than might be expected, now they have more or less ceased to act like a party, they are not good enough to take the risk. The only thing the establishment fears more than a no-deal Brexit is a Corbyn government.
So we proceed into the last two weeks before the default cliff-edge Brexit - again. (Someone ought to tell them that the clocks go forward at the end of March, not back.) It has to be said that the most likely short-term outcome is the abandonment of May’s deal; and, in that case, the most likely consequence is that the prime minister, whoever it may be, is instructed to get a long extension from Brussels; and then, in that case, the Europeans will grant it, in deference to changed political conditions. We are already three hops down a very complicated decision tree, however, and beyond that guesses are useless. The administration best equipped to react would be a national government - such arrangements reliably get a ‘honeymoon period’ purely as a result of the mistrust of politicians and their petty backbiting, and the yearning for a show of unity in the ‘national interest’. The numbers are there for such a government; and so is the constituency, as is clear from the successful ‘remainer’ march last weekend.
Unresolved by such an outcome, however, is ‘Cassandra’ May’s dire prophecy. She reminds MPs constantly that ‘the British people’ would not forgive such a betrayal; and millions of the British people certainly would not. It is common to find leftwingers in the ‘remain’ camp in a desperate rearguard effort against the march of the far right. They should pay more attentions to May’s warnings, even as her authority crumbles, lest they find themselves with a victory in name only.