Good week for Theresa May - but it’s the big Brexit deal which will make or break her premiership.
It doesn’t happen often, but Theresa May had a good day on Tuesday. She urged MPs to vote against government policy on the Northern Ireland backstop, and they did so. Bizarre it may have been, to see a government backing an amendment which drove a coach and horses through the EU Withdrawal Agreement, but it enabled the Prime Minister to live to fight another day and go to Brussels with a mandate.
The trouble is that the EU immediately put a spoke in the works by declaring that renegotiation was not an option. It’s a stance they are likely to maintain right up until the 59th minute of the final hour. It’s what they do.
As you read your newspaper this morning, there are only 56 days until we formally exit the EU. This is now concentrating minds, not just in the UK, but in Brussels and perhaps importantly Dublin. The EU may well appear to be unwilling to compromise to help Theresa May out of a hole, but perhaps they need to look at it in a different way. If there is no way through this Backstop morass then it won’t just be Britain that will be hurt, it will be Ireland. The effect on the Irish economy of a no deal UK Brexit will be far worse than any negative effect in the UK. You’d have thought, therefore, that the EU might want to seek a compromise to help Ireland by finding a deal that the UK Parliament can back.
We are entering two months of brinkmanship. It’s time for our politicians to hold their nerve, but the same will be needed from the rest of us too. We’re bombarded with a daily dose of dire warnings from various sectors of the economy about the deleterious consequences of a no deal Brexit. Apparently we won’t be able to buy food in supermarkets or access medicines. This week we learned that the supply of lettuces will dry up. It’s fiction, of course, and designed to spread fear among us that we’re about to enter some sort of dystopian Britain where riots and protests will become the norm. Of course, if we don’t come a deal there is bound to be some sort of short term disruption in some sectors, but to pretend that we will all go to hell in a handcart is risible.
One thing that should worry us all in East Anglia is that this continuing uncertainty is clearly stifling new investment. Large companies are putting their investment plans on hold until they know exactly what the terms of trade will be. This is especially so in the tech and life science sectors, so the economy of places like Cambridge, and perhaps to a lesser extent Norwich, are being adversely affected already. That’s why it is so important that we do leave, on time on March 29th with a deal.
At the moment, I still think it is highly likely that Theresa May will end up by asking the EU to extend Article 50, which would mean the uncertainty would continue until the end of June or even longer. And investment decisions would be delayed even further, or maybe put off altogether. The self-styled ‘People’s Vote’ campaign should think on that. If they get their way, the uncertainty would continue until the end of the year and beyond.
The results in the House of Commons this week demonstrated there is no parliamentary appetite for extending Article 50, or holding another referendum. Yes, an amendment put forward by Caroline Spelman and Jack Dromey passed, but it was a wishy-washy way for Parliament to express its desire not to leave the EU with no deal. I don’t think that should come as a surprise to anyone. I can think of only one Conservative MP – John Redwood – who has actively said he would prefer to leave without a deal.
Theresa May’s premiership will be judged on one thing. Do we leave the EU with a deal or not? If we do, she will have delivered on what she promised two-and-a-half years ago. If she doesn’t she will go down in history as a failed prime minister, on a part with Sir Anthony Eden.
And believe me, she is determined to avoid that at all costs.