The Irish Times view on Jeremy Corbyn’s big moment: the tragi-comedy enters its final act

British politicians are paralysed, discredited, unable to meet the requirements of the moment. A process that began at the ballot box in 2016 should end there too

A prime minister so transparently lacking the basic political skills of imagination and strategic dexterity has accidentally stumbled onto the right approach because it was the only road left open to her. Photograph: Isabel Infantes/AFP/Getty Images

A prime minister so transparently lacking the basic political skills of imagination and strategic dexterity has accidentally stumbled onto the right approach because it was the only road left open to her. Photograph: Isabel Infantes/AFP/Getty Images

 

It’s fitting that, in its closing act, the Brexit tragi-comedy should end up exactly where it ought to have begun. In reaching across the aisle to the Labour-led opposition in a cross-party attempt to decide what type of Brexit Westminster wants, Theresa May has finally taken what should have been the very first step in the process of leaving the EU two years ago.

Instead she waited until the UK was just days from crashing out with no deal, with London in the grip of a political crisis and the country having become a laughing stock, to initiate a bipartisan effort to address the basic question that her famously daft tautology, “Brexit means Brexit”, left unanswered. A prime minister so transparently lacking the basic political skills of imagination and strategic dexterity has accidentally stumbled onto the right approach because it was the only road left open to her.

For more than two years, she has prioritised Conservative Party unity above her country’s national interest, bending time and again to the English nationalist extremists in her own party and the single-issue fundamentalists in the DUP. From the beginning, theirs was a doomed marriage. May’s red lines, applauded by the Brexiteers, led inevitably to the withdrawal agreement those same Brexiteers baulked at. Three times she tried to get it through the House of Commons and three times the Brexiteer/DUP ultras abandoned her.

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Ultimately that left May with two options. One, a no-deal exit, would be catastrophic. May knows it and so does the House of Commons, which has voted the idea down by a large majority. The other – a grand bargain with Labour – is now in play. The Tory fringe is furious, but it has only itself to blame.

Will May’s final gamble work? Don’t bet on it. Labour will suspect a trap designed to press its fingerprints onto a deal that pleases no one. It will wonder whether any deal agreed with May could be torn up by her successor. And unless Corbyn can ascertain quickly that May is genuine about moving towards the soft Brexit that parliament favours, he will have no incentive to move towards an accommodation that will risk alienating his own pro-remain party base.

But Labour suddenly finds itself in a position to call the shots. It should use its new-found power. It should make May the following offer: we will support your withdrawal agreement as it stands on condition that you then put it to a public vote in which the other option is to remain in the EU.

The UK is about to take the most consequential decision it has faced in the postwar era – one that could profoundly damage the country and its standing in the world. Its politicians are paralysed, discredited, unable to meet the requirements of the moment. A process that began at the ballot box in 2016 should end there too.

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