Even the prime minister’s allies are now running out of patience with her high-risk, last-minute manoeuvring
It was always going to be the case that the negotiations at Westminster would be tougher for the prime minister than the haggling in Brussels. Although the European Union is striking a hard bargain — as it was bound to do — it is broadly united, consistent and acting rationally to protect its interests. The same cannot be said of the United Kingdom, where ideology is being put before pragmatism and party concerns placed above the national interest.
The Brexit talks are on a knife-edge before what was to have been a “moment of truth” summit this week because, for entirely domestic reasons, Theresa May has no room to compromise. One cabinet minister describes the “tiny airstrip just a few metres wide” on to which it would be possible to land a deal with the EU, but the prime minister’s co-pilots will not let her adjust course by even a few degrees in order to get the plane to the safe spot.
At least three Brexiteer cabinet ministers are threatening to resign in protest at plans to effectively keep the country in a customs union, while the Democratic Unionist Party is warning that it will withdraw its support from the government if the prime minister agrees to a situation that could mean Northern Ireland staying in a version of the EU single market. Its leader Arlene Foster has now said that she believes a no-deal Brexit to be the most likely outcome of the talks.
Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader, has also made clear that she would strongly oppose any solution that gave special status to Northern Ireland, since that could strengthen the case for another referendum on Scottish independence and hasten the break-up of the UK. If Mrs May tries to pivot towards the Tory Eurosceptics to protect her position in No 10 she will lose the support of her cabinet pro-Europeans. Meanwhile, Labour is like the air traffic controller sending out mixed messages that risk sending the aircraft crashing to the ground.
Mrs May might get through today’s cabinet meeting by keeping the plane circling in the air for a bit longer before specifying her landing spot, but she cannot stay in the holding pattern for ever. In her Commons statement she was deliberately vague about the terms of the so-called backstop but she will have to offer clarity soon. “Her strategy has failed,” says one senior Tory MP. “We are between a rock and a hard place and she will crash into one side or the other. We are approaching the final act of the Tory party. Europe is the disease which has destroyed the last four Tory prime ministers and it’s about to destroy this one too.”
A minister compares the Conservative leader to a chess player with only a king left on the board, who is powerless but still hanging on. “She’s in a situation where every move she makes worsens the national predicament. We still basically have no agreed government position — it’s absurd. If you were playing computer chess the only way out of this would be to press the reset button.”
Another minister says that with the hard-Brexit European Research Group flexing its muscles “the Conservative Party has taken leave of its senses and the party of pragmatism is being driven by the ideologues. The country is being held hostage by petty politicians pushing their own fortunes.”
President Macron of France said recently that the rest of the EU faced a version of the “prisoner’s dilemma”, the game theory concept in which two parties acting in their own selfish interests refuse to co-operate and so ultimately lose out. “Everyone can have an interest in negotiating on their own and think they can negotiate better than their neighbour,” he said, but by doing that “it is probable that collectively we will create a situation which is unfavourable to the European Union and thus to each of us”.
So far at least the other 27 countries have acted together for the greater good, but in the divided UK the political tribes are operating in their narrow self-interest in a way that could end up producing the outcome they least want.
By refusing to endorse potential compromises the hard-Brexiteers risk bringing about a parliamentary crisis that triggers a second referendum that could lead to the country staying in the EU. The Remainers are in danger of creating a situation in which the country crashes out with no deal, the scenario they most fear. The DUP could end up with the “hard border” they loathe if they push the prime minister so hard that she loses all ability to negotiate. The Labour MPs in Brexit-backing areas who are planning to vote through a deal could see themselves punished at the polls if their constituents end up worse off.
The civil servants who have been trying to engineer the outcome they believe to be least damaging to the country will find the matter taken out of their hands by elected politicians if they produce something that the House of Commons cannot accept.
As for the prime minister, by attempting to assert her authority over her cabinet and prove her strength by refusing to change course, she has only demonstrated her weakness and perhaps fatally undermined her own position.
Mrs May’s strategy seems to be to leave everything until the very last minute, whip up a sense of hostility to the EU as an external adversary and hope that she can cobble together a deal before bouncing parliament into supporting it for fear of something worse. But there are what one minister describes as such “fundamental incompatibilities” in the positions of the key players at Westminster that it is hard to see how that will work.
For now all the sound and fury is coming from the Brexiteer side but the Remainers are just as angry and will not wave through what they see as a deal that is worse than the status quo.
Ministers could vote for a second referendum if the country is heading for what they see as a catastrophic no-deal Brexit. There is no majority for any of the options in the Commons and now both time and patience are running out.
“She’s toast,” says one publicly loyal minister. “This is such a global shambles. We are a laughing stock on the world stage. The government feels like it’s really at a point of no return in terms of credibility. I feel we have just got to start with a totally clean slate.”
With friends like those in Westminster, Mrs May will have no need of enemies in Brussels to bring her Brexit house of cards crashing down.