Philip Stephens: The EU cannot rescue Britain from itself
The British government can no longer be counted as a trusted partner
Therese May: Some senior cabinet members conclude she would rather let Britain fall out in a disorderly Brexit than have history say she split the Tories. Jessica Taylor/PA Wire
I had intended to address a slightly sheepish plea to Britain’s European partners. Even at this late hour, the EU27 should show forbearance with the Brexit shenanigans at Westminster. The prize of an amicable parting of the ways - or, in the best case, a change of heart in a second referendum - was worth it. My shaky resolve collapsed after Theresa May’s latest swerve. The EU could now be forgiven for simply throwing Britain overboard.
The prime minister’s embrace of her party’s hardline Brexiters was breathtaking in its cynicism. Only weeks ago she was immovable about the arrangements in the EU withdrawal agreement for the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Now she promises to try to rewrite them to suit the prejudices of her party. What of the Belfast Agreement, the treaty underpinning peace on the island of Ireland? It ranks second, it seems, to appeasement of Brexiters such as Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg.
The mandate the prime minister claims to have secured to rewrite the Irish “backstop” is worthless and incredible. Worthless because all the other options for the Irish border have been exhaustively explored, and discarded, during the Article 50 negotiations. Incredible because the hardliners who backed her this week do not want an agreement. Supporting Mrs May now was a diversion. The real strategy is to run down the clock all the way to a no-deal Brexit.
From the moment she replaced David Cameron in Downing Street, Mrs May faced a choice about Britain’s departure from the EU. She could prioritise the unity of Conservatives by bowing to the theological fundamentalism of the party’s English nationalist wing. Or she could try to build a wider, cross-party coalition around a softer version of Brexit.
From the setting of her first “red lines” she preferred the former course. The latest Faustian pact was a logical destination. Party counts before country. Whatever the consequences for the nation, Mrs May is set on leaving the EU by March 29. “My duty”, she calls this. The messianic tone has led some senior cabinet members to conclude she would rather let Britain fall out in a disorderly Brexit than have history say she split the Tories.
Britain’s European partners are neither blind nor stupid. Watching the antics in the House of Commons, they know well that winning a single vote with a slender majority of 16 has not given the prime minister anything resembling a sustainable negotiating mandate. The support of the hardliners will be withdrawn as and when it suits them.
In the meantime, Berlin, Paris, Brussels and the rest are being asked to abandon the Irish government and to gamble with peace - all in the cause of guaranteeing for Mrs May the votes in parliament of the Democratic Unionist party and preserving Tory unity. The prime minister bridles at the charge that she is careless of peace. But her stance bears no other interpretation. For its part, the DUP was the only big political grouping in Northern Ireland to oppose the Belfast Agreement.
What must be doubly maddening for the EU negotiators is the assumption among so many Tory MPs that the Irish arrangements were designed permanently to lock Britain into a close trading relationship. Nothing could be more removed from the truth. Governments across the EU fear the backstop, were it ever to be implemented, would give Britain an unfair advantage - unique access to the European market without any responsibilities. The EU27 would be as eager as any Brexiter to ensure such a regime was short-lived.
Doubtless, even now, there are adjustments that could be made to make it easier for a trusted political partner in London to win parliamentary support for the withdrawal agreement. Brussels officials are looking at ways to emphasise the EU’s intention, if it can, to avoid the backstop. Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, should do what he can.
The British government, though, can no longer be counted as a trusted partner. If the latest mix of deception and delusion has shown anything, it is that there really is nothing that its European partners can do to save Britain from the crash-out course set by Mrs May. The brakes can be applied only by the nation’s own politicians.
The House of Commons has voted against a disorderly Brexit. But it is has refused thus far to arm itself with the means to enforce its decision. Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, has been as capricious in his manoeuvrings as Mrs May. He boasts that Brexit is an irrelevance. His political destiny is to “build socialism”.
This leaves a swath of pro-European MPs running across the Tory/Labour divide - between them a basis for majority but one detached from the party leaders. The Tory MP Dominic Grieve and Labour’s Yvette Cooper have been brave in defying the party line. They have equally courageous allies, but so far not enough of them.
The dynamic could change. This could start with a binding motion calling for a delay to the timetable. The second step could be a series of votes to explore options for a softer Brexit. My hunch is that the faster the clock ticks the more likely it is that Britain will tumble into an unintended election. A second referendum could follow. But Mrs May must first be stopped.
Philip Stephens is a columnist with the Financial Times