Philip Stephens: Theresa May has one last throw of the Brexit dice
As a matter of urgency, the prime minister must pledge to prevent Britain from crashing out of the EU
An arrangement of daily newspapers photographed in London on January 16, 2019 shows front pages reporting on the UK parliament's rejection of the government's Brexit deal. - Prime Minister Theresa May was left "crushed" and "humiliated", Britain's newspapers said on January 16 as they raked over the fallout from parliament's huge rejection of her EU divorce deal. (Photo by DANIEL SORABJI / AFP)DANIEL SORABJI/AFP/Getty Images
I cannot recall Britain falling so low. The Suez debacle in 1956? As supplicant at the door of the IMF 20 years later? These were moments of national shame. They were moments also that passed. The impact of Brexit has been cumulative. Each chapter in the story heaps on more humiliation. However it ends, the damage will not be quickly undone.
A crushing defeat for Theresa May’s flawed blueprint was predictable and predicted. In the event, her plan was eviscerated. In normal times, the prime minister would already have packed her bags. These are extraordinary times. Mrs May can expect to win the vote of no confidence tabled by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. But to what purpose?
Stand back from the melee and it is truly breathtaking that, a matter of weeks before Britain’s scheduled departure from the EU, nothing is secure by way of transitional arrangements or a firm framework for the future. Decades of close economic integration and intimate political collaboration with its fellow European democracies - and, as things stand, there is nothing with which to replace it.
The prime minister’s authority is broken. In Mr Corbyn, Labour has a leader marooned in the fantasies of his 1970s socialism. He tells left-leaning leaders elsewhere in Europe that Brexit is unimportant when set against his grand ambition “to build socialism”.
Parliament imagines it has “taken back control”. Yet the MPs who disposed of Mrs May’s plan do not have a shared destination. As a matter of urgency, the prime minister must pledge to prevent Britain from crashing out of the EU. First stop is a request to the EU27 to stop the clock.
David Cameron, who gambled Britain’s future for the sake of peace and quiet among Conservative MPs by calling the 2016 EU referendum, stands atop the rankings as the worst prime minister of modern times. Yet in promoting her plan to the point of destruction, Mrs May has made a bid for her predecessor’s place.
“When the history books are written”, she began to say in parliament this week, before being howled down by opposition MPs. She has one chance left to attach a redeeming footnote to her dismal premiership. Sad to say, there was nothing in her first reactions to this week’s vote to suggest she will grasp the challenge.
In politics, self-knowledge is the beginning of wisdom. The prime minister can do nothing of worth until she admits to herself why her proposal was such a predictable failure.
The original sin dates back to the autumn of 2016. Mrs May was a Remainer in the June 2016 referendum. She secured the leadership of a party in which the Leavers seemed to hold sway. The first mistake was an effort to “prove herself” by pandering to hardline Brexiters; the second to assume the process could remain the property of the Conservatives. She imagined herself the leader who could set at once the terms for Brexit and forestall a Tory rupture such as those over the Corn Laws or “imperial preference”.
Everything else, including this week’s train crash, flowed from this initial misjudgment. The “red lines” set out at her first Tory conference, the rush to invoke Article 50, the inflexible framework outlined in her Lancaster House speech and a botched general election that robbed her of a majority - all were bound up in the idea of Tory ownership.
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, was clear from the outset as to the EU27’s guiding principles. He never budged from them. Mrs May blithely assumed that whatever satisfied the Tory party would pass muster in Brussels. How is it that the Conservatives, so long so obsessed about the EU, have learnt so little about it?
By now, Mrs May should understand that a halfway sensible Brexit preserving close ties to the EU and a Tory party united behind it amounts to an oxymoron. She relies on Northern Ireland’s deeply Eurosceptic Democratic Unionist party for her majority. Even were she able to ignore the DUP, there were always enough Kamikaze Brexiters in her party to scupper a compromise; and sufficient Tory moderates to prevent a complete surrender to the narrow English nationalism of leading Brexiters such as Boris Johnson.
Britain joined the then European Economic Community more than 40 years ago only after a Tory prime minister, Edward Heath, secured the backing of dozens of rebel Labour MPs. A negotiated Brexit likewise requires cross-party consent. Mr Corbyn is a lost cause but Mrs May cannot go anywhere without the support of those moderate, pro-European Labour MPs who are ready to ditch their own leader.
All this requires Mrs May to set aside her vanity to behave as a prime minister rather than a party leader - to demonstrate the political leadership of the convener. Attempts to preserve Tory unity have been tested to destruction. An agreement with Brussels that serves the national interest means leaving behind the kamikaze Brexiters in order to test cross-party support for continued membership of the EU customs union and of the single market.
Many will say the prime minister is simply too small a politician for the task. On the evidence thus far the odds are they will proved right. In such circumstances, the duty of parliament will be self-evident. It must offer the voters the informed choice denied to the country in 2016.
Philip Stephens is a columnist with the Financial Times